BLOOMINGTON — Several times during the week, Indiana head football coach Tom Allen said his team was in “playoff mode” going into its game against Wisconsin at Memorial Stadium.
The Hoosiers needed to win each of its last four games this season to make a bowl game. And on Saturday, they got the job done. IU held on for a 20-14 victory, snapping a four-game losing streak and giving Allen his third Big Ten win since the start of 2021.
Wisconsin (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) out-gained the Hoosiers 344-261 on the day, but Indiana (3-6, 1-5) came up with key plays when they were most needed. The Badgers committed two turnovers, and turned it over on downs twice more. IU stopped Wisconsin in plus-territory three times, including a crucial fourth-quarter sack by linebacker Aaron Casey to knock UW out of field-goal range.
The Hoosiers faced several turning points on both sides of the ball, where Wisconsin could’ve taken momentum and the game would’ve gotten away from them. But in most of those situations, IU responded.
Allen has talked about those sorts of moments many times this season, when his team was on the wrong end of them. And he said it was huge for his players to come through this time.
“We tell our team this: Every play is the most important play in the game because you don’t know which one is going to be that play that turns the momentum,” Allen said. “Most of the time we came up with those big plays. That’s what you want. You want a team that expects to make those plays. You want players that want to be put in those positions.”
Indiana opened the game with a 66-yard touchdown drive, as quarterback Brendan Sorsby ran it in from eight yards out. The redshirt freshman extended that possession with a few key 3rd-down conversions.
Sorsby finished the day 19 for 31 for 186 yards and a touchdown, and he rushed for eight yards on 14 attempts (including two sacks for a combined 26-yard loss). He was listed as questionable entering the game after hurting his shoulder during the Penn State game last week, and it limited him in practice during the week.
“The shoulder was bothering me a decent amount. It kind of hurt to throw a little bit, so I was just kind of taking it easy,” Sorsby said. “Obviously out at every practice taking mental reps and stuff, but I felt comfortable out there today.”
The Hoosiers extended their lead to 10-0 in the second quarter on a 27-yard field goal by Chris Freeman, who previously missed from 43 yards out. Wisconsin ended the shutout later in the quarter, on a Bryson Green slant route that turned into a 54-yard touchdown pass from Braedyn Locke.
Indiana answered with its own scoring drive, largely thanks to Donaven McCulley. The junior made two highlight-reel plays that helped IU extend its lead. He caught a pass on a comeback route, but managed to avoid hitting the ground on the hit, bounced up, and scampered for extra yardage — a 32-yard gain in total. Four plays later, he made an athletic one-handed touchdown catch on the left side of the end zone, making it 17-7.
McCulley made several other big plays Saturday, and drew some key penalties that helped IU put the game away. He led the Hoosiers with five catches for 67 yards and the touchdown. But none of the other plays stacked up to his one-handed grab.
“It’s obviously a difficult catch. I see the ball in my hand, I was like, ‘Whoa, I caught this,'” McCulley said. “If you ask coach Allen, I used to do that in practice, try to catch it with one hand, and he would just get on me about it.”
IU’s two 10-point leads were its largest of the season against an FBS opponent.
The Badgers cut the deficit to 17-14 on the first drive of the second half, on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Locke to Will Pauling. IU defensive back Jordan Shaw tripped in coverage, allowing Pauling to break free in the end zone for an easy score.
Shaw bounced back from the mistake and played a strong game overall. The true freshman made a huge pass breakup on a 3rd and 2 in the fourth quarter, and he tied Casey for a team-high nine tackles.
A few minutes after his sack, Casey came up big again. He punched the ball out of Wisconsin running back Cade Yacamelli’s possession and forced a fumble, which Josh Sanguinetti recovered. The linebacker had a huge game, with the huge big plays, another sack on Wisconsin’s final possession, and four tackles for loss.
IU stopped Wisconsin on 4th and 2 with just over four minutes remaining, and the Hoosiers milked nearly three minutes off the clock on the ensuing possession. Allen made a big decision to attempt a 50-yard field goal instead of punting, and Freeman rewarded his coach’s faith.
Wisconsin needed a touchdown on its final possession, with 1:10 remaining and no timeouts. And IU’s defense sealed the win. Louis Moore forced a fumble on the game’s final play, as Sanguinetti made his second fumble recovery of the afternoon.
“Just really proud of our team, their ability to stay together (and) keep battling. What I saw this week in practice is what you saw today,” Allen said. “Wasn’t always pretty. But really physical, good football team we just played that I knew was going to be a challenge. … We know we’ve got to win each week. We don’t talk beyond whoever is next. It was about finding a way to get ready for Wisconsin.”
IU hits the road next week to take on Illinois.