The calendar says it was still less than three years ago.
But it feels like a lifetime for IU football fans.
8-25 (.242) will do that to you.
On Dec. 5, 2020, Indiana marched into Madison, Wisc. with a backup quarterback and did the unthinkable — they ended a 10-game losing streak to the Badgers that dated back to 2002.
The scenes on the field and in the locker room after that 14-6 Indiana win marked what appears to have been the climatic moment of the Tom Allen era.
As Allen did a postgame interview in the end zone, his players shouted things like “I love you coach” and “best coach in the nation” as they went back to the locker room.
Indiana had just completed a 6-1 run through the Big Ten that included wins over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Standing on the field victorious at Camp Randall Stadium, Allen’s Hoosiers were 14-6 over the last two seasons and on their way to a second straight January bowl game.
Allen was named the national coach of the year a month later in January, 2021. In March of 2021, Indiana gave him a 7-year contract extension, and no one really blinked an eye.
Now with Wisconsin and Indiana set to meet again for the first time since that 2020 matchup, folks can only vigorously rub their eyes, and hope the last three seasons have been some kind a cruel joke.
If there was a moment where the bottom fell out of Allen’s wildly successful two-year run, it was probably Sept. 18, 2021.
That’s when Luke Fickell brought No. 8 Cincinnati to Memorial Stadium for a sold-out showdown in Bloomington. Indiana completely dominated most of the first half, building a 14-0 lead over Fickell’s Bearcats in front of its largest home crowd for a non-conference game, 52,656, since September 1987.
Despite a hiccup two weeks earlier to open the season in Iowa City, the Allen era appeared to be alive and well.
But the momentum swung when a replay review resulted in a targeting call and the ejection of Hoosiers linebacker Micah McFadden, giving the Bearcats a first down.
Almost instantly things changed for Indiana.
“We were dominating them till that point,” Allen said after that game. “He’s our leader, he’s part of our pressure, he makes a lot of tackles, and when you lose a guy like that, that’s tough.”
McFadden is now in his second year in the NFL, an emerging star linebacker with the New York Giants.
And for Allen and his Hoosiers, things are still, well, tough.
IU would go on to be outscored 38-10 on that fateful afternoon in Bloomington and ended the season 2-10 after opening the year ranked in the top-20. They went 4-8 in 2022, and are off to a 2-6 start to the 2023 campaign.
Despite the sudden fall from grace, there are still remnants of the magic Allen had seemingly captured three years ago.
After Indiana had No. 10 Penn State tied at 24 on the road late in the fourth quarter last weekend, Fickell, now the head coach of Wisconsin, sees a flicker from the past.
“I think this (Indiana) is a team that is creating and generating some momentum,” Fickell said on Monday. “I think they’re playing better. I think they’re into a rhythm a little more offensively than maybe they were in the first five games (before) they made the switch.”
The newfound offensive rhythm has some Wisconsin flavor.
The switch Fickell is referring to is offensive coordinator Rod Carey, who is from Madison, Wisc. and got his start in college coaching as the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stout from 2000-06.
Carey was 3-1 as a player for Indiana against Wisconsin from 1990-93. Starting with Carey’s senior year at IU, the Badgers took 16-of-18 in the series before the 2020 Indiana win.
Change has been the constant as Allen attempts to reignite the program. Carey is the third offensive coordinator since the 2020 season, and Allen made a change at offensive line coach as well, hiring former Wisconsin coach Bob Bostad.
Fickell is right. There were signs of life from IU on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
But we’ve seen it before over the last three years. The Hoosiers started 3-0 last season before finishing 1-8. In 2021 they had legitimate chances to beat Cincinnati, Michigan State and Maryland, only to come up short. Same in 2022 vs. Maryland, Michigan and Rutgers, and now this season against Louisville and Penn State.
There are things one can point to that are different right now compared to the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
For one, the team is relatively healthy. They haven’t suffered the rash of injuries we saw in the two preceding seasons.
Two, under the direction of Carey, the offense is showing signs of life, and a young quarterback, Brendan Sorsby, is beginning to gain comfort it seems. And three, the offensive line is improved under Bostad.
And finally, if last week showed us nothing else, this team has not thrown in the towel.
Somewhere, somehow, Allen’s voice is still resonating, and his team is still competing.
There’s still a flicker of that magic from 2020.
But we’re a long way from that December evening in Madison.
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