Unlike many in the business, Indiana head coach Tom Allen does his best to give an honest, thoughtful answer to every question.
What does this week’s game against Ohio State mean to IU?
The coach-speak standard answer would be something along the lines of “it’s just the next game on the schedule.”
When it comes to Indiana’s contest against the Buckeyes on Saturday, that answer wouldn’t be true — and Allen didn’t go there.
For a program like Indiana, a win over Ohio State led to the darkest day in the history of Ohio State football and legitimized a program rise that lasted for a decade.
Similarly, for a program like Purdue, a win over Ohio State led to a Tyler Trent fueled field storming euphoria with enough national exposure in one night to potentially also serve as the foundation of a turnaround.
As much as a head coach might want it to be treated as just the next game on the slate, playing Ohio State is different.
And beating the Buckeyes?
“Well, those are program-changing opportunities and program-changing wins when they occur, and they don’t happen as often as you want them to, but that’s what makes them special,” Allen said at his regular Monday media availability.
They certainly haven’t happened often for IU, and especially when it comes to Ohio State.
That darkest day in Ohio State football history? 32 years ago.
The Hoosiers repeated the feat the following season, annihilating the Buckeyes 41-7 in what was likely an even darker day.
And they haven’t done it since. The sun has been back out in Columbus for decades.
Winners of three of the last five Big Ten titles, Allen recognizes that Ohio State represents the king of the hill right now.
“There’s no question that they’re who this whole conference has been chasing and they have performed at that level,” Allen said. “But it also creates tremendous opportunity, and that’s how I look at it.”
What makes it possible for Ohio State to hold such a long winning streak over Indiana?
Or even a seven game winning streak against their arch rival Michigan if you prefer?
“Your margin for error against these guys, teams like this, is right there,” Allen said. “Every mistake you make gets magnified. They expose you in a lot of ways. That’s why you have to play so hard and so well together and have a complete offense, defense, special teams game.”
Indiana has tiptoed that imaginary margin for error line many times in the recent history of the series.
The Hoosiers led 17-14 in the second quarter at Columbus last year and kept things reasonably close into the fourth quarter.
IU led 14-13 at halftime in 2017, trailed just 24-17 midway through the third in 2016, and a Zander Diamont pass that would have tied that game as time expired instead fell to the ground in the end zone in 2015.
It doesn’t end there.
Indiana led 20-14 late in the third quarter in 2014 and lost an insane 2012 contest by a final score of 52-49.
For six years of the last seven years, opportunity for IU against Ohio State has turned into what ifs and frustration.
Of course Allen knows about this all too well. He’s been a part of the last three meetings, and he is aware of the longer term story.
“I know the history,” Allen said. “I know where we’re at. I know what’s it been since we’ve beaten this team.”
But he also knows that with better execution down the stretch, and with the better depth that Allen is gradually building, one of these years things are bound to to go dark again in Columbus, and simultaneously catapult the IU program.
“My mindset and the expectation that I have as the head coach of this program, we’ve been competing with them now for the last few years, and so it’s our objective and expectation to be able to finish the job,” Allen said.
“It is a great chance for us to be able to take that next step as a program, as we always like to say, and those are definitely program-changing, program-defining wins that affect recruiting and affect the trajectory of your program.”
With so much at stake for Allen and the program, it would be easy for the team to get too hyped about this game.
While he wants the habits and routines to be the same this week, Allen acknowledges that there will be a different vibe.
“There’s no question there’s a heightened sense of intensity and focus and urgency that’s created because of who it is and the fact that it’s a conference game,” Allen said.
The challenge for Allen and his coaching staff will be to find a way to channel that energy into something positive.
“Yes, there’s no question that this game is going to bring out — has to bring out our very, very best, and that’s what we’re looking forward to, and that’s what we expect,” Allen said.
Everyone would agree that it will take IU’s very, very best to pull off what would be a major upset on Saturday afternoon.
This isn’t just another game on the schedule after all.
It’s a team that Indiana hasn’t defeated in 32 years. It’s a game that could change the direction of one program, while casting a darkest day cloud of doubt over the new regime leading the other.
It’s all of those things, and of course, no one outside of the IU locker room actually believes that the Hoosiers can finally win in this series.
That’s all just fine with Allen.
He may very well be talking to the media about the 24th straight loss to Ohio State come Saturday afternoon.
But both now and then, Allen is going to shoot straight with you.
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