It felt like Big Ten weather all day.
For Indiana's first Big Ten game of the season, skies were gray in Bloomington, rain drizzled off and on, and temperature never reached above 55 degrees. Not great, but perfect conditions for Big Ten football.
Despite the conditions, tailgating was out in full force all day outside of Memorial Stadium, and as usual, the parking lots and the fields just south of 17th street were filled with revelers. This is no surprise - Indiana has always had a great tailgate crowd.
However, the mood was different before the game yesterday. As 3:00 rolled around, the parties stopped, and fans packed up their vehicles. And the notoriously late-arriving Indiana football crowd lined up at the gates at quarter after three, in order to get into what would be a packed house to see the 4-0 Hoosiers host the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. For many IU fans, including myself, this was uncharted territory.
If you've ever been in Indiana for more than 10 minutes, you probably know this saying: "In 49 states it's just basketball, but this is Indiana."
Indiana will always be a basketball state, and IU will always be a basketball school. The banners, Assembly Hall, and the candy stripes are all part of a tradition.
But with football, it's a different story.
Yes, there is Notre Dame, up in South Bend. The Irish are reliably good, and Brian Kelly has been the most consistent Notre Dame head coach since Lou Holtz. Despite being in South Bend, Notre Dame feels like more of a national program. The school has its TV contract with NBC along with its independent status, and has recently moved to both play more ACC opponents (and join the conference in all other sports), and protect its traditional West Coast rivals, in lieu of traditional local rivals Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue. Also, there is the tradition aspect. (Which reminds me. Rudy was offsides.)
Despite its national presence and reputation, however, Notre Dame still takes away recruits in the state, as last season, 4 of the top 7 Indiana recruits committed to Notre Dame, according to 247Sports. In 2014, Notre Dame took the #1 and #4 recruits in Indiana. I've joked a lot about reversible jacket fans on Twitter before as well. So, despite its reputation as a national fanbase, the school's location in the Hoosier State and tradition of success makes it an indirect competitor for both recruits and attention to other colleges in the region.
The school on the other side of that aforementioned reversible jacket, of course, does not have that same reputation in football.
When I moved to Indiana, the Hoosiers had just come off a 1-11 season. Kevin Wilson had come into an impossible situation, one that had befuddled every coach prior to him since Bill Mallory was in charge. In 2012, there was hope based on the Penn State and OSU probations that 4-5 IU could back their way into a Rose Bowl berth. Of course, Wisconsin and BERT ran up the score like always and put away any thoughts of that happening. The next year, a win over Penn State brought early-season optimism, but IU's defensive struggles prevented the Hoosiers from getting more than 5 wins. Last year, the road win over Missouri had the fanbase excited, but injury woes set the team back. Kevin Wilson has gotten Indiana teams on the cusp of breaking through in the past few years, but they haven't broken through. Still, there was enough in each year to keep IU fans coming back to football games and retain confidence in Wilson.
As the game was about to kick off, the view from the North End Zone looked like this:
Sure, there were a couple sections that had yet to fill, but they soon did, and overall, Memorial Stadium was packed in a way that was only reserved for top B1G opponents. And of course, the opposing team's fanbase made the relatively short drive to B-Town as well; in my section, the fans were still only about 60/40 in favor of Indiana, and with both teams' fans wearing red, the overall crowd was hard to tell. However, homefield advantage - something we like to always tout for the hoops team in Assembly Hall - was on display yesterday, and the Hoosier fans were loud and on their feet for most of the contest.
This crowd also did something that was fairly uncommon for past IU football games - stick around for all four quarters. Usually, a mass exodus at halftime would begin to make the walk down to Kirkwood. Not so in this game. The student section especially deserves props, as they remained cheering and chanting throughout. And as the Hoosiers stayed competitive despite injuries to Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard, the crowd stayed involved as well.
All week, Ohio State seemed to be treating this game with an air of indifference. "OSU will clobber Indiana," they said. "Go play basketball, you unsophisticated hicks," they said. Even at the game, I had to listen to obnoxious Buckeye fans mansplaining every aspect of the game to anyone around them in earshot. (Quick aside: Seriously? People in this state also love the Colts and high school football. It's not like IU fans don't know what football is. But yes, your authentic CFP jersey means you are the lone authority on all things pigskin, doesn't it, Mr. OSU Superfan?)
But why should Buckeye fans have treated the game any other way? After all, this was cute little Indiana, perennial doormat, another checkmark on the road back to the College Football Playoff. And despite early struggles, the Buckeyes built a two-touchdown lead early in the 4th quarter, and this game looked to be in hand.
Past Indiana teams may have folded at this point. Past Indiana crowds may have folded at this point.
However, yesterday was different, and everyone was sticking this game out. Even after eating dinner, over an hour and a half after the game ended, I encountered traffic on the bypass on my way out of town. As the final gun sounded, the game's final score was 34-27 Buckeyes. But thanks to some heroics from Zander Diamont, and a defense that kept everyone not name Zeke Elliott in check, OSU only narrowly escaped, even with Sudfeld and Howard sidelined for most of the second half.And the Hoosier faithful gave the team a round of applause as they made their way into the locker room, over four hours after kickoff.
Indiana is a basketball state, IU basketball has the titles, and the most well-known college football team in the state has more of a national vibe. But for four hours yesterday, Indiana University felt like... dare I say it... a football school. Hoosier fans showed yesterday that they are ready to have a good football squad. At the game, it was clear that a new attitude in IU football has emerged. There is excitement around the IU football team, and the fans are starting to believe. The days of IU football apathy are over, and the untapped potential for a great crowd is here - now the team has to get those victories as well. Yesterday, the Hoosiers had a chance to win or tie on their final drive, and against the #1 team, that's all you can really ask for. At 4-1, the season is not even halfway over, and the Hoosiers still have a good chance to make a bowl game. So despite the loss, I'm confident that Hoosier football fans will keep up the positive energy as the season wears on.