In each of the last two seasons, IU met Purdue with both teams sporting 5-6 records in a “bucket or bust” must-win scenario for bowl eligibility.
In 2019 the dynamics have changed. The Hoosiers (7-4) are already bowl eligible and the Boilermakers (4-7) cannot get there.
After jubilantly peaking to sixth and seventh wins several weeks ago against Nebraska and Northwestern, this year’s Old Oaken Bucket contest against Purdue takes on a new meaning for IU.
Breakthrough or bust is overstating where things stand for Indiana, but look at it this way — if IU ends the regular season with a third straight loss on the season, most of the good vibes from a month ago will have faded, and the cloud of uncertainty that has hovered over this program for the better part of 135 years will rear its ugly head, if only off in the periphery.
The difference between a three game losing streak and the first eight win season in 26 years is stark, and IU head coach Tom Allen was already shifting his focus to Purdue in the post-game locker room after Saturday’s 39-14 loss to Michigan.
“We’re not going to spend a lot of time on this game (Michigan), to be honest with you. We’re going to move forward, move ahead because we know what’s coming, Allen said on Saturday evening.
“We all understand what’s next. We got a chance to get our 8th win of the season and we got a chance to win the bucket back. So those are two huge things that we are going to put a huge premium on and this football team will be ready.”
Indiana could win an eighth game in a season for the first time since 1993. That was also the last time that IU finished a season with a winning record in the Big Ten — something else that the Hoosiers will accomplish with a win in their 122nd meeting with their arch rival.
Those are the kind of generational accomplishments that are needed to establish positive momentum and hush the ever present doubters.
Even as the IU football program moved to 7-2 after a resounding win over Northwestern a few weeks ago, the naysayers were out there.
“Yeah, but look at the record of the teams they beat” is a variation of a refrain we have heard in recent weeks. For what it’s worth, the aggregate record of the teams that Indiana has defeated is 19-59. The teams that Indiana has defeated in the Big Ten this year have a combined 4-28 record in league play.
While the naysayers were without a doubt missing the significance of the moment as IU secured bowl eligibility and a winning season, it was at least expected if not understandable skepticism.
Indiana has done nothing to quiet the minority of doubters after consecutive losses to top 15 opponents in Penn State and Michigan in the ensuing weeks.
“You had really two very, very tough teams that we’ve individually beaten each of those teams once in the past 50 years,” Allen said. “Tough opponents. We knew that. We prepared the to the best of our ability, fell short this last weekend.”
Those losses were expected, but a loss to Purdue on Saturday is not. The Hoosiers are a seven point favorite according to the odds makers.
While any negativity over the last month was mostly just white noise off in the background drowned out amid big picture optimism, that dynamic can shift this Saturday.
If the Hoosiers lose their third straight game this weekend, and do so at the hands of a 4-7 Purdue team, well, a decent amount of the good vibes from this 2019 season will be thrown out like Thursday’s turkey carcass.
A loss on Saturday wouldn’t just be Indiana’s third straight of the season, it would be their third straight against Purdue, and it would make IU head coach Tom Allen 0-3 against Purdue’s Jeff Brohm. If you think that won’t matter when it comes to regional recruiting battles, you are sadly mistaken.
Despite their disappointing and injury riddled season, Purdue is positive about their future with a recent run of recruiting success that has outpaced IU’s own strong efforts. A win by Allen over Brohm will no doubt help to change narratives, hearts and minds out on the trail.
A three game losing streak to end the season also won’t be looked upon favorably by bowl committees. While unlikely, the specter of a late December trip to sunny Detroit still looms as a “reward” for a Indiana’s first winning season since 2007.
Conversely, an attractive bowl destination, a win over Purdue, an eighth win on the season and a winning Big Ten record are all on the line Saturday. All of those variables represent an opportunity to not just win a game, but finish writing the story of a feel good season, and in the end, win the crowd.
“We see the big picture. We know the way we’re building here. I want our guys to understand that, Allen said on Monday.
“Finishing with a victory to get the bucket back, get momentum going into our bowl game, it’s huge for our program, for our future, and for what we’re building here.”
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