This Indiana football season had felt like a foregone conclusion for several weeks, if not more.
The Hoosiers weren’t just losing. They were getting embarrassed. From sputtering around lifelessly for most of the game at Rutgers to getting run out of the building against Penn State and Ohio State, Indiana seemed destined to end the season on a nine-game losing streak.
But Saturday in East Lansing, the Hoosiers did something that’s become unusual for them. With their backs against the wall, they battled back.
After trailing 24-7 and 31-14, Indiana tied the game and caught a break from Michigan State’s kicker to get to overtime. IU snapped its seven-game skid in double overtime.
“Really proud of our players and the fight that they showed today. Unbelievable,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “Down at halftime, and just all we had going here recently, having a hard time getting wins. Just being able to come on the road and get a huge win to win a trophy game. Just couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
Indiana (4-7, 2-5) faced adversity in every game this season, even before the aforementioned three losses.
IU handled those situations well early in the season. Connor Bazelak led a game-winning touchdown drive in the last two minutes of the opener against Illinois, after his team was outplayed for most of the game. Indiana had to come back in the second half against FCS opponent Idaho. And the Hoosiers needed a late blocked field goal to get to overtime and eventually win against Western Kentucky.
Yes, IU showed some fight at times during the losing streak. After Cincinnati built a 28-point halftime lead, the Hoosiers managed to get the game within two scores in the fourth quarter. One week later, Nebraska went ahead 21-7 with six minutes until halftime, and IU got to the locker room with the score tied.
But moments like those have come few and far between this season. Way too often, when something goes against the Hoosiers, they act defeated. They’d just go through the motions, whether it was blocking or tackling that provided equally little resistance, running plays going nowhere, coverage breakdowns, or a litany of other things. IU just had not responded well to any sort of pressure this season.
“There’s no question you lose your confidence when things don’t go your way,” Allen said. When you start to get that back, it’s a powerful thing.”
And despite playing on the road, with game conditions Allen described as one of the coldest he’d experienced, the Hoosiers managed to regain that belief. With every big play IU came up with, this game started to feel a little different from the many that preceded it. And those big plays were the difference — despite all the craziness of the end of regulation and overtimes, and the particular wackiness of its run-pass balance, Indiana won this game because of several massive plays.
The type of moments Indiana couldn’t find for so much of the season. The Shaun Shivers 79-yard rushing touchdown on the first offensive play of the second half. Jaylin Lucas answering a Michigan State touchdown with a kickoff return score. Getting a takeaway in an important point in the game, for the first time in a long time.
It begs the question: where was this resiliency for so much of this season, when IU could still play for more than just pride?
Obviously, each game and opponent are different. Indiana could’ve been the most resilient team in the country in Columbus and still would’ve likely been crushed by Ohio State. But too many games have slipped through the Hoosiers’ fingers this year because they simply wilted in critical moments. Small things turned into big things too often.
And now that we know IU can still do this, what does it mean?
Frankly, not a lot. It reasserts that Allen can motivate his players — which, despite the turmoil that’s defined the last two seasons, wasn’t in question. It shows that the Hoosiers believe in Dexter Williams at quarterback and his ability to keep the team in games. And it proves that Indiana does have some intangibles within the roster to build on in the future.
For this year, it’s a good win in a trophy game, and a second conference victory that few saw likely. It’s mostly too little, too late.
But maybe — just maybe — this could be the day Indiana football points to as the day the program got its fight back, and the day the program reversed course and set on the right path again.
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