There were several moments in the second half on Friday night when the ghosts of 2021 cast long shadows at Memorial Stadium.
A 16-10 halftime IU lead quickly vanished when wide receiver Andison Coby dropped a pass that Illinois intercepted and quickly turned into 5-play, 41 yard touchdown drive.
17-16 Illinois. Here we go again.
Then the heart-and-soul of the team, linebacker Cam Jones went to the training room with an apparent leg injury. That injury had already been preceded by his fellow captains Devon Matthews and Matthew Bedford, who left the game in the first half and never returned.
Behind a struggling offensive line, Indiana couldn’t run the football and quarterback Connor Bazelak had very little time to throw.
Indiana had seemingly picked up right where it left off last November. And things were quickly spiraling out of control.
But that’s when visions of the magical 2020 season suddenly reappeared, along with a signal that this 2022 Indiana campaign might just be something altogether different.
Defensive back Noah Pierre delivered a big hit on a backwards pass and then scooped up the loose ball for a takeaway. Illinois’ next series was thwarted by an IU goal line stand. And the defense delivered again deep in IU territory, when Josh Sanguinetti picked off an Illinois pass at the Indiana eight yard line.
Three straight second half drives into IU territory, three stops.
“We got our offense the football. We kept giving our offense a chance — our team a chance to win,” head coach Tom Allen said after the game.
And for the better part of 58 minutes, that offense did next to nothing with the chances they were given.
Indiana rushed 26 times for just 32 yards behind its struggling offensive line. Prior to the last two minutes, Bazelak was a pedestrian 21-of-42 passing. The Illini had only one sack, but they tallied six tackles for loss and four hits on Bazelak, who was chased out of the pocket all night.
“We’ve got to work on that (the offensive line),” Allen said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’ll got a lot better. We’ve got to get Matt Bedford healthy, find out what his status is. Not good enough to win games consistently.”
Six Indiana second half drives had yielded just 85 yards, with the penultimate series resulting in fumble by wide receiver Cam Camper, who otherwise had a monster debut. The JUCO transfer had 11 catches for 156 yards, but Illinois turned his mistake into points, and took a 20-16 with just 2:20 remaining.
There were no late game heroics in 2021. Those Hoosiers would have folded up shop and gone home for the night. And to this point, the 2022 Hoosiers looked no better.
But that’s when an attribute that helped Bazelak win the starting job surfaced. It may have been Indiana’s last drive with the game on the line, but the Missouri transfer was unfazed.
“He’s extremely poised,” Allen said. “And, like I said, it showed in that moment when you have to be under complete composure and find those open receivers and be accurate.”
The game’s biggest moment, the make-or-break moment, brought out the best in Bazelak.
“Honestly, that was the first time I’ve seen Connor talk for real, and I was kind of happy to see that,” Camper said. “It was good to see him keeping us positive after certain plays, telling us it was good and we would get another one. The game kind of brought out Connor being a leader honestly.”
The game may have brought an end to the ghosts of 2021 as well.
When Shaun Shivers plowed in from a yard out with 23 second remaining to cap off a 12-play, 75-yard drive, it was more than a game-winning score. It ended a stretch of misery that was reaching a year, and a Big Ten drought that dated to 2020.
No, these Hoosiers aren’t perfect. Far from it. And nobody knows that better than Allen. But this game was never about making statements or winning with style points.
Indiana, come hell or high water, simply needed to win. And they found a way.
“Got a lot of things to work on, there’s no doubt about it,” Allen said. “But there’s a lot of power in finding a way to win a game like that.
“There’s a lot of — so many positives that it creates in your team, the belief. And what we’ve been through the whole past year, trying to get a Big 10 win and our first one. It’s just massive. I can’t put enough words to how important this game was and how important it was to find a way to win.”
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