As college football has grown in the past two decades through the influence of ESPN, the controversies of the BCS and now CFP, and the increased money being poured into the sport all over the country, Indiana was slow to pick up on the trends. IU is always going to be a basketball school first and foremost, everyone knows that. But in recent years, Fred Glass and others in the Indiana administration have understood the benefits of a good football team to a university, both in name recognition and athletic department profits. We all watch a lot of Big Ten hoops here, but football is the conference’s bread and butter. Indiana can’t afford to be a perennial 3-9 team.
Enter this season.
After a sometimes thrilling, other time maddening 2016 campaign, the Hoosiers have finished with another 6-6 regular season record. The stinging losses were there, but Indiana always did best when its back was up against the wall.
And yesterday’s Bucket game played out like most Indiana games this season.
Erratic first half. Weird turnovers. Huge key plays followed by red zone inefficiency. A defense that found its footing in the second half. An offense that incorporated every trick in the book.
In the fourth quarter, it came down to whether Indiana could make enough plays on both sides of the ball to win. Half the games this season, they’ve done this, and in the other half of games, they haven’t.
Luckily, the Hoosiers ended up on the winning side yesterday.
So why does a two-point win over a bad Purdue team feel so good this morning? Because it represents progress, and a continued trajectory of improvement for IU football.
Before last season I wondered if IU would ever make a bowl game again. Now, they’ll be headed to their second in a row. Even with a lot more bowls now than there used to be, this is the first time Indiana has done this in 25 seasons. (Speaking of which, Devine Redding is now the first IU running back in 25 seasons to cross the 1000-yard threshold in two straight years.)
As for the Bucket victory - Purdue may have been down and out the past four years, but two of those games still came down to the final minute. Regardless, this is a rivalry game, and Purdue - even with an interim coach - tried their hardest to ruin Indiana’s season. And yet, Indiana has now won the game four straight times. Win again next season, and it’s their longest winning streak in the history of the 119-year rivalry.
The bowl berth provides teams with three extra weeks of practice and preparation for an opponent who, like them, will be .500 or better (unless it’s one of those 5-7 teams that sneaks in). This is important, because it not only gives the seniors one last hurrah, but it also gives younger players more practice reps in as they continue to get accustomed to the team. Only one of IU’s six victories came against a bowl-eligible team this season, and that was a against a Maryland team that is ranked 90th in S&P, so this game will also be a good test to end the year on a high note. And a bowl victory would be another IU milestone - they haven’t won one since New Year’s Eve of 1991.
Finally, give a lot of credit to Kevin Wilson to fixing the problem child of almost every Indiana football team in the past 20 years - the defense. Tom Allen is a Broyles Award finalist this year for good reason, and he’s done an incredible job turning IU’s defense into a strength of the team. Thanks to the defense, Indiana has kept themselves in games that they would have never had a shot in the past few seasons. And through this defense, they’ve been able to do something else that Wilson teams have had trouble doing in the past - win close games. Indiana won its four Big Ten games this year by a combined total of 17 points, and much of this has to do with the defense getting the job done when needed.
So instead of hot seat rumors and serious questions about the future, we get to debate bowl game destinations on Twitter this morning (Nashville is my definite preference). Sure, the games were often frustrating this year, and Indiana still has a lot of room to improve. But a second consecutive bowl berth for this program? That’s something to be excited about today.