By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE -- Purdue coach Joe Tiller might have one more lesson for former protege Scott Downing: Show no mercy to your opponent, even if he's a friend.
He'll get to deliver the message Saturday when Purdue hosts Northern Colorado, where Downing is the head coach, in the first meeting between the schools.
Downing was an assistant at Wyoming under Tiller for six years before going with him to Purdue as assistant head coach. But their shared history doesn't faze Tiller.
"Obviously, you want to win the football game," said Tiller, who is heading into his 12th and final year as Purdue's coach. "You don't want to see a friend lose a game, but the flip side of the coin is, I'd rather him lose it than me."
The two programs were polar opposites last season. Purdue finished 8-5 and defeated Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. Northern Colorado lost its first eight games and went 1-11.
Saturday's meeting looks like a mismatch. Purdue boasts one of the Football Bowl Subdivision's top returning passers in Curtis Painter; Northern Colorado had one of the Football Championship Subdivision's worst pass defenses last season.
The Boilermakers tend to start strong, winning their past four season openers by an average score of 53-21. That's why Painter, a captain and steady leader of the team, said he doesn't worry about the Boilermakers taking Northern Colorado lightly.
"I don't think that our team is that kind of team," he said. "I think we're all very excited to play this first game. I think we've done a great job in the past of being very focused the first game, and I think this team is that exact same way."
Tiller has an 83-54 record at Purdue and has led the Boilermakers to 10 bowl games in 11 years. He's prepared to hand the reins to new assistant head coach Danny Hope after the season, but for now, he's focused on winning Saturday's game.
"This is the 44th year I've been doing this, which is quite a chunk out of one's lifetime," Tiller said. "I think maybe at the end of the season, I'll get a little more emotional. I've really avoided thinking about any of that. I'm just thinking about football and football season."
Painter already has set Purdue records for passing yards in a season and a single game, and is nearing several others. Last season, he passed for 3,846 yards, 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He passed for a school-record 546 yards in the 51-48 Motor City Bowl win and now is a contender for every major award for quarterbacks.
He ought to get off to a rousing start. Northern Colorado allowed 35 points and 281 passing yards per game last season. Purdue ranked 12th in the FBS in passing yards per game, while The Bears ranked 115th out of 116 FCS teams in pass defense last year.
But the key to Purdue's success in the opener might be running back Kory Sheets, the fastest starter of all. He has a combined 218 yards and four touchdowns in his past two openers and has been thrust into a primary role since Jaycen Taylor was knocked out for the season with a knee injury.
Sheets ranks near the top of the several Purdue rushing record lists, despite never having been the featured back. He's tied for second in school history in career touchdowns (37) and is ninth in rushing (2,210) and all-purpose (3,301) yards.
"I think Kory's going to have to be the real workhorse," Tiller said. "We've got a number of young guys that as the season unfolds, I think they'll come into focus a little bit better."
David Woods is Northern Colorado's top returning rusher. He ran for 715 yards last season and caught 15 passes for 116 yards but has been replaced in the starting lineup by D.C. Wilson.
Mike Vlahogeorge, the team's top returning passer, was switched to tight end. Bryan Waggener, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior, is the new starting quarterback.
They face a Purdue defense that allowed 27 points per game last season, but one that Tiller said will be better at all positions this season.
Ultimately, the matchup that likely will determine the outcome will be Purdue's offense against Northern Colorado's defense. The Bears faced a similar offense in their season opener last year, a 63-6 loss at Hawaii.
"Hopefully, we can draw on that experience and start fast, and realize that yeah, these guys are from the Big Ten, but they only can put 11 guys on the field at once, and so can we, and we can try to be successful on our one-on-one battles," Downing said.