Quarterback Michael Penix, Jr.’s dramatic reach for the pylon against Penn State sent the Indiana program into a bit of a frenzy.
Last second signature wins will do that.
But IU’s too unbelievable even for a Hollywood script win over the Nittany Lions was more than just a surreal triumph on the football field.
It was the first IU Athletic competition of any kind in more than seven months, the third iteration of the schedule, and a season that was preceded by starts and stops at each of spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp.
Off the field, things were much more harrowing.
A player ended up in the hospital with COVID-19 complications, and another player’s parents were killed, as was a beloved program alumnus.
“It has been quite the journey to get to this point,” was head coach Tom Allen’s understatement during the week leading up to the Penn State game.
The moment Penix somehow managed to stretch the first and perhaps only grain of pigskin across the goal line, an offseason of tumult immediately turned into in-season chaos.
Everyone wanted a piece of Allen and his players, and they were all too happy to oblige.
“It was definitely different after the Penn State situation and getting ready for Rutgers,” Allen said of the distractions. “That had not happened around here since I have been here.”
Indiana navigated it all just fine of course, and took care of Rutgers in business like fashion.
And then a new wave of questions began.
Allen spent a week answering variations of the same inquiry — Why can’t you beat Michigan?
For anyone that would listen, Allen had an answer — the past, 33 years and 24 straight games, were not predictive. And then Indiana of course proved it, with a dominant win over the Wolverines that led to more celebration, and another week long media tour.
Surely that knocked Allen and his program off course this time, right? By then Allen had crowd surfed his players twice, t-shirts had been made, Big Ten honors bestowed. The Hoosiers were ranked in the top ten and in many ways, national darlings.
This team had to lose focus. This is Indiana football after all. Losing focus typically happens midway through the third quarter.
Indiana proceeded to end a 19 year losing streak at Michigan State, while delivering its first Big Ten road shutout since 1993.
It should be clear by now that nothing is going to phase Indiana. Not the pandemic, not tragedy, not big wins, and not its first top ten showdown since the Hoosiers faced O.J. Simpson in the 1968 Rose Bowl.
When Indiana met Ohio State in 2019, in a pre-pandemic world, it was coming off early season wins over Ball State and Eastern Illinois. Allen’s very young team was not mentally or physically ready for the Buckeyes, and it showed in a 51-10 beat down.
Let’s face it, Ohio State just might pummel the Hoosiers once again in 2020.
But if that happens, it won’t be because Allen’s team was distracted or unprepared, or the moment was too big.
And it won’t be because Indiana is enamored with its rankings and media attention either.
At this point they have seen and done it all, and Allen believes that should prove beneficial as his team prepares for its biggest test of the season.
“It gives you a chance to do something a second or third time, which is a positive,” Allen said of staying focused after big wins. “When you learn how to handle certain things and what to focus on, if you liked the way things went, you do those again and keep it the same. If you do not like some of those things, you make adjustments. I think that our players are getting used to that part of it, which is good.”
In a year of seemingly never ending stress and gut punches, programs with the real, established cultures are probably best prepared to thrive. It likely isn’t a coincidence that coaches like Allen and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald sit atop their respective Big Ten divisions right now.
A strong culture allows you to handle the stress, absorb the gut punches, and stay focused on the task at hand.
Whatever the challenge, Allen believes his team’s ability to have that kind of tunnel vision is fueling the early sustained success.
“We understand that the preparation part does not change,” Allen said. “That, to me, is the key and that is where the rhythm and attention to detail comes in. That is the biggest thing that you have to work on, our focus. That is the ability to prepare at a high level in film evaluation, walk-throughs, meetings, the practices, everything that we do leading up to the game. Those things can be affected in a negative way.”
During his first two years on the job, Allen was quizzed over and over — how would his team ever “break through?” Yeah, remember that phrase?
What would it take to finally finish close games?
Now, suddenly, the seemingly unattainable has become a budding routine.
Not only did Allen’s Hoosiers break through and learn how to finish, now they are well rehearsed in the week-to-week process of winning.
“You have to learn to manage and balance your schedule based on the additional things that this type of situation requires and demands,” Allen said. “I think our guys are able to do that in a more consistent way because this has happened more frequently. That is a good thing. These are good challenges to have and these are things that moving forward we want to be more consistently a part of with this program.”
So there you have it.
No. 3 Ohio State — just another game to prepare for. It’s a big game only because it’s the next game on the schedule, as Allen likes to say.
Okay, no, it is bigger than that. This is Indiana’s biggest game in a generation.
Everyone knows that, including Allen.
He’s getting all the same questions again. Can you really beat Ohio State for the first time since 1988?
And he’s got the same answers.
“Opportunity is knocking, and I want to see this football team take full advantage of it,” he said of the No. 3 vs. No. 9 showdown.
Just don’t expect the opportunity to be too big.
They may win, they may lose.
But Allen’s Hoosiers have been there, and they’ve done that.
In 2020 they’ve seen bigger obstacles than the Buckeyes.
And by now it should be clear — they’ll be ready.
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