BLOOMINGTON, Indiana — It was a cold, windy, brutal day in East Lansing — or ordinary November, as the locals call it — and trailing Michigan State by 17 points at halftime, Indiana’s football team would have had it easy to don their winter coats pack up and warm gloves and go home.
Quit, in other words.
After all, 2022 had turned into a lost season for the Hoosiers. It could have been called Lost Part 2 as an ugly sequel to the truly lost 2021 season. It sure was a box office hit.
But then something strange happened. Indiana answered. A team that couldn’t walk ran the ball. A team that couldn’t make key stops made them. A team that couldn’t throw completed two huge passes when it mattered most.
A bit of luck was also part of it, of course. But if one team has earned the right to a break over the past two years, it’s Indiana. It ended in a 39-31 overtime win for the Hoosiers, a seven-game losing streak and 63 days of sheer misery for coaches, players and fans alike.
I guess technically the terminus wasn’t the ending, because what came after that mattered in equal parts. The Hoosiers celebrated winning the Old Brass Spittoon on the field, in the locker room and on the euphoric flight home. Enjoying a huge Big Ten road win like the Hoosiers do – with loud chanting and plenty of giant bears – was crucial and thoroughly enjoyed by all involved.
It didn’t erase eight weeks of agony – we know that can’t be done – but it did allow the Hoosiers to hit the reset button. There’s a reason, at least temporarily, to feel good now. They’ve won a trophy game — winning straight Spittoon games at East Lansing for the first time in 53 years — and now have their eye on a second trophy, the even more important Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue on Saturday.
“It’s such a great feeling to know these guys are sticking together,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said Monday. Like we were at halftime and then into the middle of the third quarter, man, what character and stamina these guys have have shown. I’m really proud of her.”
He should be. And frankly, we all should. What we have learned this year is that this team is full of mistakes. But what’s not so important is the pride these players have in having that name on the front of their shirts. Even during the seven-game losing streak, they continued to train hard every week — “although it didn’t always show up on the field every Saturday,” Allen said.
But they kept working, and that made Saturday happen. They rushed 257 yards behind a much-maligned offensive line that had their best game of the year by far. They got more special team magic from newcomer Jaylin Lucas — “and the 10 guys before me who made it all happen,” Lucas said. They won a Big Ten game, their second this year but their first since the inaugural win over Illinois.
And now it sets the stage for ending the season on a high note, something no one ever thought possible. Sure, the Hoosiers are underdogs against the hated Purdue on Saturday, but if they could find a way to win and finish with two trophies on themselves 5-7, it would change the entire feel of this season.
Most importantly, it changes many perceptions as well. And in modern college football, that’s huge.
The importance of recruiting your own players
Before – like two years ago and a whole century ago. that — the second the bucket game was over, Indiana’s coaches scattered across the country to begin recruiting the next day. That is no longer the case. The NCAA considered this a dead week for high school recruitment, and with good reason.
Because now there’s something more important – to spend the week recruiting your own players. Now that kids can transition non-stop — and shop around for better NIL deals, perhaps the most important thing is for Indiana coaches to keep their roster together.
Having all the good feelings from a win – or maybe two – will make that job a lot easier.
“I don’t know if there’s any value that would properly explain it,” Allen said of the importance of late-season wins ever experienced. I never thought it would ever be like this once you start coaching. Probably five or six years ago I never thought of such a thing.
All you do is just find a way to make sure the guys on your team understand their role, their value, and their development for their future. And you have to sell it all the time. You haven’t even thought about some of these things in relation to these brefores. You thought it was a regular part of what you do but starting a conversation with guys to try to keep them. Before you ever try to meet them, plan out the next step for them what the next few months will be like when we come back after the season is over.
Allen made it clear that all of this work can’t just be done in the week following the season. He said it’s important to have those conversations with players throughout the year. This is a team and those ties are strong for many. Despite the losses, many players are completely bought into nothing.
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But not all of them. That’s where work comes in.
“Now you have conversations about convincing them to stay, and sometimes they can be pretty blunt conversations,” Allen said. “There were many things that led to this. It’s been a tough season and the guys are frustrated and everyone wants to win and I want to win as much as everyone else. But you just stay true to yourself and you want guys who want to be here.
“Now they have the opportunity to move more than ever before. It doesn’t change. You want to keep the right people here. And I want people, like I said, who have the passion for this program and believe that “We can do special things here together. But yeah, you have to be proactive about it. We talk about it as employees all the time. It makes us no less responsible, and I don’t want that.” to ever change that. But you also have to make sure they don’t accept anything. They need to know how you feel about them. You must know the plan for them. They need to know exactly how you see them, a part of our future, because I think that’s what they want to be. And their families want to know too. It definitely adds a whole new dimension to everything we do.”
It changed college football so much.
“You used to think, hey, when the season is over you go out and recruit your class,” he said. “Now the season ends and you have to recruit your own players first, which is a whole new thing and will never change. This is how it will continue from now on.”
Added value to convince Purdue
Beating Michigan State is one thing, but beating Purdue would be another. It is also without question the most important game on the Indiana schedule. The Boilermakers are 7-4 and still hoping to win the Big Ten West. Indiana would love to ruin all of that for Purdue, the current owners of the Old Oaken Bucket. The two teams did not play in Indiana’s 6-1 season in 2022 due to COVID-19 outbreaks at both schools, and the Hoosiers won in 2019.
“We understand we’re playing for a trophy, and a trophy that means a lot to this university,” said Allen, a Hoosiers native who is well-versed in bucket history. “This game has tremendous value every year and the stakes are very, very high. It’s increased now because of the season we’ve had. And in order for us to continue the momentum we were able to generate last week and have one of the biggest comebacks we’ve had in our program in a long time — winning in consecutive games at East Lansing for the first time in 53 years — that’s history, the doesn’t happen too often.”
That’s for sure. It’s also very good that Indiana wins Spittoon and the Bucket in the same year. This has only happened five times so far, the last time in 2016.
“The bottom line is this is a hugely important game, but you know what? They all are. But it’s not just the next game. It has tremendous value and a lot of things that go into this game. Our boys will understand that plays out like this week.
“Their endurance and tenacity and struggle showed last week but that’s in the past now. We need to build on that and carry that momentum into this week. We have to have our best week of preparation and have our best game together on Saturday.”
Saturday is going to be emotional for the always emotional Allen because he’s been with this senior class – and a bunch of sixth grade boys – from the start. They all played a lot of football together, for better or for worse.
“It’s a special group and they’ve been here for a long time. We’ve been recruiting this class all (first) year, and all the effort they put into us means a lot to me,” Allen said. “They were part of the breakthrough in ’19 and ’20, and they did last endured a tough year this year and this year was also challenging. So it’s a special group of guys that I have a lot of respect and tremendous love for.
“It’s going to be an emotional day to be honest. But at the same time we work together, fight together, cry together, laugh together. And I want us to end this group of guys’ time together in a great way at Memorial Stadium.”
Saturday’s game begins at 3:30 p.m. ET at Memorial Stadium. It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so there won’t be many students. Indiana has been trying hard to sell tickets, but it’s far from sold out.
And that’s a shame, especially for a rivalry game.
“I just want to have the best possible audience. I hate that they don’t get a chance to do that. I don’t have any say in the planning,” Allen said. “I just want your rivalry game to be a game where everyone’s here, all the students are here, and everyone’s out full force.
There are long odds against a second straight win for Indiana – Purdue is a 10.5-point favorite according to SI Sportsbook – but it would really change a lot from the perspective of this season. Winning two trophy games takes a lot of the pain out of that seven-game losing streak.
And if it makes the off-season better, then that’s a big plus too.