In a season where it seems like nothing has gone according to plan, Indiana’s constant has been at linebacker.
Coming off a 2020 season that saw him earn second and third team All-American honors by two outlets, Micah McFadden was in many ways the poster-boy of the high expectations surrounding IU’s 2021 season.
Each week it seemed there was a new preseason watch list with his name on it, including the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Never was his value to this Indiana football team more apparent than when McFadden was ejected during the first half of a week three game against Cincinnati. Indiana had completely dominated the still undefeated and No. 2 ranked Bearcats, but when McFadden exited the game flipped immediately, and in many ways, so did the Hoosiers’ season.
Rather than claiming that win over a top-10 team and improving to 2-1, Indiana lost to Cincinnati and it has managed just one win since as their season has gone from disappointing to spiraling out of control with a wave of injuries and even some midseason transfers.
Whatever impact it all is having on McFadden mentally and emotionally, he hasn’t let any of impact his play.
“He’s a warrior,” head coach Tom Allen says. “Tough as nails.”
Playing with an injured thumb for at least the last two weeks, McFadden has a Big Ten-leading 12 tackles for loss, a team-leading 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
It seems whenever a big play happens, McFadden is somehow involved.
— Indiana Football (@IndianaFootball) October 14, 2021
“There’s no doubt this (season) has gone completely different than any of us had hoped or expected or would want,” Allen said. “He has stayed locked in, stayed positive, stayed focused. He has not flinched whatsoever. He practices hard every day. He plays his tail off every Saturday. That will not change.”
McFadden was named midseason second-team All-America by Rivals.com and The Athletic. But individual postseason honors are typically reserved for players on successful teams. If Indiana’s slide continues McFadden’s play may be overlooked. That would be nothing new to him, once a vastly underrated recruit with few college options beyond IU.
Even if Indiana’s poor performance ultimately costs McFadden postseason recognition, his presence has been felt more than ever in Indiana’s locker room. In the past he was a reluctant leader, a quiet lead-by-example type.
That has changed this year in what might be but isn’t necessarily his final season at IU. McFadden has taken on the role of trying to keep the team from fracturing amid the disappointment.
“He’s worked extremely hard to prepare himself physically and mentally to become a much better leader verbally,” Allen said. “That’s shown up big time. He’s willing this group to stay together. That to me has been the key.”
Never has the challenge been greater for McFadden or Allen, as the Hoosiers are coming off an embarrassing 54-7 loss in front of a sold-out home crowd. They’ve dropped to 2-5 on the season and now face the possibility of playing one or more games, possibly the rest of the season, with at best the third-string quarterback. If there is a late revival, it will almost certainly be led by the defense.
McFadden was the only IU player who met with the media after the Ohio State loss. And while his frustration and disappointment in the outcome was obvious, the fight was still there.
“This is a start to a completely new season for the Hoosiers,” McFadden said.
If Indiana does magically turn things around beginning on Saturday at Maryland (noon Eastern, BTN), McFadden no doubt will be a central reason why. His head coach believes that.
“He’s a big reason, and there are many others, why I believe we have to persevere, show tremendous grit and allow this team to continue fight, because much better things are ahead for this team,” Allen said.
McFadden has defied the odds since arriving on campus as that unheralded recruit. He played right away, and he’ll go down as one of Indiana’s greatest linebackers.
But his greatest challenge, turning around this season, is still in front of him.
Whatever happens, he has earned his head coach’s complete respect.
“He’s been awesome,” Allen said. “Love his leadership. Appreciate him so much. There’s a reason why he’s been voted captain the last couple years, and his play on the field shows why he’s an All-American. He’s so consistent and I have so much love and respect for Micah McFadden.”
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