That Indiana football season had felt like a foregone conclusion for several weeks, if not longer.
The Hoosiers didn’t just lose. You became embarrassed. From a lifeless stutter for most of the game at Rutgers to being chased out of the building against Penn State and Ohio State, Indiana seemed destined to end the season on a nine-game losing streak.
But on Saturday in East Lansing, the Hoosiers did something that has become unusual for them. They fought back with their backs to the wall.
Trailing 24-7 and 31-14, Indiana leveled the game, earning a break from Michigan State’s kicker to go into overtime. IU snapped his seven-game sled in double overtime.
“Really proud of our players and the fight they showed today. Unbelievable,” said IU head coach Tom Allen. “Down at half-time and everything we’ve had here lately has had a tough time getting wins. Just being able to hit the streets and hit a big win to win a trophy game. We just couldn’t be prouder of our boys.”
Indiana (4-7, 2-5) has faced adversity in every game this season, even before the aforementioned three losses.
IU handled these situations well early in the season. Connor Bazelak led a game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes of the opener against Illinois after his team was overplayed for most of the game. Indiana had to come back in the second half against FCS opponents Idaho. And the Hoosiers needed a late blocked field goal to get into overtime and eventually win against Western Kentucky.
Yes, IU has shown a struggle at times during the losing streak. After Cincinnati built a 28-point lead at halftime, the Hoosiers managed to take the game to two points in the fourth quarter. A week later, Nebraska led 21-7 with six minutes left at halftime, and IU came into the dressing room with a tie.
But moments like this have rarely happened this season. Far too often, when things go against the Hoosiers, they act defeated. They just went through the motions, whether it was blocking or tackling that offered no resistance, running plays that went nowhere, cover breakdowns, or a litany of other things. IU just hadn’t responded well to pressure this season.
“There’s no question that when things don’t go your way, you lose your confidence,” Allen said. When you start getting that back, that’s a powerful thing.”
And despite playing on the street, in playing conditions that Allen described as some of the coldest he’d ever encountered, the Hoosiers managed to regain that belief. With every big game IU came up with, this game felt a little different than the many that came before it. And those big plays were the difference – despite all the weirdness of the end of regulation and overtime, and the particular weirdness of its run-pass balance, Indiana won that game on multiple massive plays.
The kind of moments Indiana couldn’t find for much of the season. Shaun Shivers’ 79-yard rushing touchdown on the first offensive play of the second half. Jaylin Lucas answers a Michigan State touchdown with a kickoff return score. Get a snack in a key point of the game for the first time in a long time.
It begs the question: where was that resilience for so much of this season when IU could still play for more than pride?
Obviously every game and every opponent is different. Indiana could have been the most resilient team in the country in Columbus and still likely would have been crushed by Ohio State. But too many games have slipped through the Hoosiers’ fingers this year because they simply withered at critical moments. Little things turned into big things too often.
And now that we know IU can still do it, what does that mean?
Honestly not much. It reaffirms Allen’s ability to motivate his players – which was not in question despite the turbulence of the last two seasons. It shows the Hoosiers believe in Dexter Williams as a quarterback and his ability to keep the team in games. And it proves that Indiana has some intangible assets in the roster to build on going forward.
It’s a fine win in a trophy game for the year and a second conference win few thought likely. It is usually too little, too late.
But maybe — just maybe — this could be the day Indiana Football is pointing to as the day the program hit back, and the day the program changed course and got back on the right track.
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