Tom Allen’s voice has been a mess since fall camp started in early August.
Every time you hear him speak you’re reminded, the seventh-year head coach is still all-in on righting the IU football ship that two weeks ago seemed to be unavoidably sinking.
But over the last two weeks we’ve been reminded loud and clear — Allen’s voice, however damaged, is still resonating within his program. Considering the circumstances after a 1-5 start including a third straight loss to Rutgers, it’s impossible to ignore how well Indiana has played the last two games.
As the losses mounted this fall, we listened each Monday as Allen recited the litany of changes he and his staff implemented in what was, let’s face it, a desperate search for answers. There have been staff changes, changes to the practice schedule, changes to the way the team practices, changes to starters, rotations — basically, everything.
Nothing seemed to matter.
There was a miserable first half against Louisville, a win that should have been a loss vs. Akron, embarrassing losses to Maryland and Michigan, and then what felt like the back breaker at home against Rutgers.
After that third straight loss to the Scarlet Knights, we unapologetically wrote this: IU football is broken, and the necessary fix is going to be expensive and painful.
It certainly didn’t feel like it on that Saturday afternoon just over two weeks ago, but was the necessary fix already coming from within?
The following week, IU did the unthinkable and took Penn State to the wire despite being a four touchdown underdog. And now they’ve followed that up with an upset win against Wisconsin, the program’s first home win over the Badgers in two decades.
In both games, Indiana looked more like Allen’s 2019-20 teams, when we got into the habit of talking about IU’s “first time since” this and that.
There was a late interception by Josh Sanguinetti to give the Hoosiers a chance at Penn State. Aaron Casey delivered a massive sack vs. Wisconsin to put the Badgers away in the final minute. Those are the kind of plays Allen’s Hoosiers seemed to come up with each week on their way to a 14-7 two-year run. They’re the kind of plays a team fully locked in finds a way to make.
So how did this clearly fractured ship remain afloat?
Allen’s “Love Each Other” mantra has become a punchline to many in the fan base, but for him it’s still the answer. And at this moment, it deserves a hat tip.
“I just attribute it to our culture, I really do,” Allen said after the win over Wisconsin Saturday. “Our kids believe in what we’re doing. They care about each other. It’s way bigger than just a guy out there making plays for himself. They believe in what we’re doing.
“I think that just showed in the way they played the last couple weeks. That’s (Penn State) a tough road game, a tough crowd, tough to muster after a disappointing loss. A game we all knew we needed to win. Now you got to go on the road to play a top-10 team in the country. You saw the response.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to point to a few reasons why Allen and his staff have found some answers midseason.
There’s been a change at offensive coordinator to Rod Carey that’s now had a few weeks to marinate. That’s coincided with quarterback Brendan Sorsby getting multiple starts, and he’s clearly beginning to get comfortable.
There’s a defense that’s generally been decent this year, save for a few weeks when things snowballed. Also under the direction of a new coordinator, they’ve seemed to figure some things out and eliminate mistakes.
The Hoosiers have also remained relatively healthy this season, and that’s helped to stabilize things. In each of the two prior seasons, a wave of injuries helped to seal Indiana’s fate.
And by just competing and playing well at Penn State, even in a loss, the momentum began to build.
“It helps build our confidence,” Casey, who Monday was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, said. “We know going into a top-10 last week and playing well against them and bringing it all the way down to the end, it gives us extra confidence knowing we can do it, we can produce out there on the field.”
Playing well against Penn State and then getting over the hump and closing out a win over another top-tier Big Ten team like Wisconsin was another step in what now appears to be a progression.
In an era when players can be tempted to focus on the lure of money and the transfer portal, finding answers midseason is more challenging than ever.
And now we reach a point where the range of outcomes for this 3-6 season remains wide open.
The Hoosiers could lose out, render the win over Wisconsin a fluke, and enter the offseason with Allen 9-27 over the last three years and his status very much in question.
They could also win out, achieve bowl eligibility, and experience one of the greatest midseason turnarounds in program history.
And of course there are possibilities in the middle where things get murky.
To close out the season, Indiana plays three teams with a combined records of 9-18 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten. There’s a danger in looking at those numbers and believing the Hoosiers can run the table and miraculously save what appeared to be a lost season.
With Indiana a 5-point underdog at Illinois this weekend, and probably no better than a push against Michigan State and at Purdue, you’d be a fool to believe the Hoosiers are going to stroll to a bowl game for the third time in the last five years.
But it also now seems clear, you’d be a fool to believe Allen’s Hoosiers have thrown in the towel.
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