Here it is - another column about another tough loss for Indiana football over the weekend.
You know the drill.
Indiana hangs with ranked team. Scares them late but loses close. Game is watched by many. Afterwards, opposing team fans give faint praise such as “Good game! You guys really gave us a scare! Got a lot to build on down in Bloomington!” before ripping their highly-paid coach to shreds for not winning by more against a “basketball school.”
It happened all the time under Kevin Wilson. And under Tom Allen, this has happened once again (his first game as coach - the Foster Farms Bowl - had a similar result).
And on a week in college football where upsets were the norm, not the exception, what a better week for this have possibly happened. But alas.
On the one hand, Indiana football could be in the best place it has been in 25 years. Tom Allen’s enthusiasm is infectious. IU fans are excited about the team in a time when they could be instead directing all their attention to basketball and new coach Archie Miller. The coaching staff is winning key in-state recruitment battles on offense and defense. They not only beat a Virginia team that’s now 5-1, they won that game by 17 points on the road. The Hoosiers still should be on track for their third straight bowl berth this season.
On the other hand, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Two years ago, after watching IU lose to the same opponent in the same stadium (and in overtime!), I wrote a column about the perils of #CHAOSTEAM. Indiana’s offense was incredibly potent that year with Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard, but the team was 4-6 and had just earned its sixth straight loss. I thought the chaos was a symptom:
Ultimately, despite the close calls, this type of chaos isn't winning Indiana games. Whether it's a now bowl-ineligible Rutgers team or a top-ranked Ohio State team or top-15 teams like Michigan, Iowa, or Michigan State, the chaos brand never works out for Indiana. Which make me wonder: would we want to sacrifice this craziness and entertainment for 2-3 more wins each season?
Fast-forward to today.
That chaotic offense may be gone, but the results and the heartbreak are the same for Indiana football. (In a darkly humorous twist of fate, that same 2015 column also talked about questionable playcalling in overtime inside the 5 yard-line.) Indiana, in a way, has gone to what I’d hoped would happen in that column two years ago - a team that’s more fundamentally sound on defense, with less craziness week to week overall. However, Saturday’s loss demonstrates that getting past the Big Ten East blue-bloods runs much deeper than “fixing the other side of the ball.” Sure, it may feel less chaotic overall, but for IU football, Lucy is still pulling that football away from Charlie Brown at that very last moment.
After the game, I enjoyed pointing out to Michigan fans how Harbaugh is 1-4 against his rivals, or tweeting them the scoreboard of the 2007 Appalachian State loss, but this doesn’t change the fact that Indiana has now lost to Michigan 22 straight times. And that includes the RichRod and Hoke eras! You can point to many factors on Saturday - Mike DeBord’s playcalling, the banged-up offensive line, the inability to stop Michigan RB Karan Higdon, or even to the Big Ten for starting IU’s conference schedule with a gauntlet of Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. But nothing the fact that these outcomes almost seem preordained for the Hoosiers.
And until Indiana finally breaks this trend of close losses to top-ranked teams, the heartbreak will continue.
Last night as I was walking home, a guy stopped me when he saw I was wearing an IU shirt. “Indiana! They came so close man - four chances at the goal line!”
I thanked him and agreed and commiserated, just like so many other times on a Sunday after an agonizing Indiana football loss. Then I saw what sweatshirt he was wearing.
“We’ll see you guys Saturday,” I said.
Michigan State has reversed course and is suddenly pretty good again this year and ranked 18th. That game’s on ABC as well. Will Indiana suffer heartbreak again, or will they finally get a big win that will propel them to prolonged football success and a steady 8-9 wins a year?
We can only watch to find out.