“I feel very confident in stating that the goal is to win the Big Ten East and play here (Lucas Oil Stadium) on December 4th,” Tom Allen said in July at the Big Ten’s media day.
At the time it was an understandable sentiment from Allen, even if it seemed more like a stretch goal. His team was coming off a 6-1 run through the Big Ten and a 14-7 overall record over the prior two seasons, so it was fair to dream a little.
What didn’t seem possible at the time was this: With three games still remaining on the 2021 schedule, Allen’s Hoosiers already know they won’t be playing in any postseason action let alone the Big Ten title game — and they still haven’t won a single Big Ten contest.
We will save the “how did they fall so far so fast” analysis for another day. Right now the more immediate question is, with the postseason off the table, how will IU approach these final three games, and where will they find the motivation to compete in the face of so much disappointment.
When goals become unattainable, there is a natural tendency to let up, start over, or pivot to a new endeavor. But a college football schedule is not designed with those instincts in mind. The culture Tom Allen has built at Indiana is defined by attributes such as grit and resolve, character traits that will be tested over the next three weeks.
But Allen believes his players, what’s left of them at least after an unrelenting wave of injuries, will continue to put in the work and maintain the focus necessary to be ready to play on Saturdays, even if nothing but pride is on the line.
“The bottom line is we gotta get ready to play next week,” Allen said after the loss to Michigan. “We’ve got to play our best football next week. (There’s) a lot of character in that room, a lot of guys hurting, but these guys are fighters, they are tough and there’s no chance this team’s gonna let up.”
Of course a team is made up of individuals, and that means each player is going to have to put their own disappointment aside and find their own motivation to push on.
Linebacker Micah McFadden has been a rare constant throughout the season. He talked about what will continue to push him throughout the remainder of his senior campaign.
“I won’t give up on anybody on this team,” McFadden said. “Maybe we’re not bowl eligible but you know this team’s going to keep fighting until the bitter end. I don’t see anybody giving up hanging their head in there it’s just you know it’s unfortunate it’s a tough loss but you know I think everybody’s going to keep fighting for each other and just you know for the love of the game.”
For the first time this season Indiana faces a run of what at least once appeared to be three straight winnable games. But with Indiana down to the third-string quarterback, walk-on running backs and a defective offensive line, survivable games might be the more operative phrase.
The most winnable of the three comes this Saturday at home against Rutgers, a team that was just routed by Wisconsin 52-3. Indiana is actually an early favorite to win the game despite its offensive shortcomings. After such a tumultuous run, it would serve everyone involved to find a way to simply win another game, and Saturday appears to be the best chance. Defensive back Bryant Fitzgerald is looking forward to getting back on the field and competing.
“I see the look in our eyes and we’re still gonna fight every every game that we have left on the schedule no matter who it is we’re gonna fight man so so I’m definitely looking forward to those to those games,” Fitzgerald said.
Everyone was saying the right things on Saturday night after the 29-7 loss to Michigan. They will continue to prepare and play hard with a singular focus on winning games.
But if it was reasonable for the team to break huddles on “Big Ten Champs” in July, it is reasonable to wonder now if anyone as anything left in the tank.
This is a team in a state of shock, from Allen all the way down.
“It’s furthest thing anybody ever thought would happen you know this year,” Allen said of his team’s 2-7 record.
“Expectations were high at the beginning, and this isn’t what we expected so you know that’s what hurts,” was McFadden’s take.
Allen is signed for a long-term deal, and he isn’t on any kind of hot seat. None, whatsoever.
But still, this is an inflection point for what he has built. For a program based so much on culture, moments like these test the foundation. If the program cannot get back to its 2019-20 success, we will look back on how the team responded, or didn’t respond in the face of adversity.
If Indiana plays hard the rest of the way and pulls out a couple wins, there’s your evidence that Allen’s voice is still resonating, and the pillars are still stable. Ostensibly, moments like these were tailor-made for Allen’s culture, and he believes his team will respond.
“Circumstances don’t dictate how hard you play and how you prepare,” Allen said. “You have something that is truly special and that is your character and your toughness your grit your fight that’s who you are so those things aren’t determined based on circumstances so our kids are going to come back and go back to work so that’s what I expect and that’s what I know is going to happen.”
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