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Indiana lost more than just the Old Oaken Bucket today

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It’s time for some serious soul-searching about the future of the Indiana football program - both now and long-term.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Purdue Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start from the top.

Indiana football is not the biggest brand name in college football. In Indiana alone, you’ve got Notre Dame, who for years has won enough to keep the attention of fans in the Hoosier State. To the north and the east are Michigan and Ohio State, respectively. Down south is Louisville, a resurgent program that now has its fourth-straight eight-win season under Bobby Petrino, who was brought back to Floyd Street despite leaving the program for the NFL in the dead of the night and despite having a sex scandal at Arkansas to his name.

And then there is Purdue.

Purdue University has long been associated with big names in college football, even if their overall record has been inconsistent. Dawson, Griese, Brees – Purdue does have some good history to their program. For the past four years, however, Purdue lingered in college football obscurity under Darrell Hazell. The struggles of the Boilermakers allowed Indiana to build up its program, getting the Hoosiers to consecutive bowl games for the first time in 25 years. And in the context of the in-state rivalry, the Hoosiers won four straight times.

However, after today’s 31-24 loss to Purdue, the progress of the past four years has now disappeared. And it is Purdue who once again has the brighter future as a program in the state – and most importantly, a definitive postseason to look forward to.

The bucket game today itself was a microcosm of all of Indiana’s problems of this season, particularly on offense. Mike DeBord’s offense has been, to say the least, uninspiring all season. This continued today. Every pass from Richard Lagow seemed to travel about 3-4 yards in the air, and never past the first down marker. Run plays were almost all straight up the middle – Morgan Ellison’s injury didn’t help things either. The hurry-up plays, which with DeBord has been like fitting a square peg into a round hole, went nowhere per usual aside from giving Purdue more time of possession. And most plays that did have a semblance of momentum got called back, such as a Simmie Cobbs touchdown early in the third quarter. FInally, in the most important play of the game, a 4th-and-6 with IU down two scores late in the 4th quarter to Purdue, the completed pass was short of the first down marker.

And in a recurring theme, the IU defense let an opposing running back have a huge game. This week it was Markell Jones, who wasn’t even recruited by IU. All in all, this was a completely flat effort in the team’s most important game of the year.

DeBord deserves a lot of the blame for today’s game plan on offense. But the conservatism extended beyond him. Indiana punted from the Purdue 41 on a 4th-and-1 with the game tied in the second quarter. Two drives later, Purdue also had a fourth down within IU territory. They called a successful fake punt, which ultimately changed the momentum of the game in favor of the Boilermakers, as Purdue went on a 24-3 scoring run after that play.

Purdue played to win this football game. Indiana played not to lose.

Ultimately, the buck stops with Allen. As a guy who’s led the IU defense to new heights over the past two years, Allen’s most important hiring decision had to come for the other side of the ball. He entrusted DeBord, a guy who was run out of Tennessee (who has now fired Butch Jones), and is still a running joke at Michigan a decade after the Appalachian State debacle. After a full season, it’s clear that this hire has not worked out.

But even beyond this, we have to question Indiana’s financial commitment to its football team. Allen is by far the lowest-paid football coach in the Big Ten, at 1.8 million dollars. Jeff Brohm is getting paid almost twice that amount ($3.3 million). And now in his first season, he’s taken Purdue to a bowl game.

After Kevin Wilson’s dismissal, which absolutely needed to happen despite the consecutive 6-6 seasons, Fred Glass went for an emotional hire that allowed him to save a few bucks – something that shouldn’t be a concern with the amount of money coming in from cable contracts for B1G schools. In the free-wheeling, big-money world of college football, a lower salary isn’t going to cut it – especially when you play in the Big Ten East and four powerhouses of the sport. This isn’t meant to be an explicit call to get rid of Allen, who seems like a great guy and really cares about the team. But it’s more of a question of where IU sees itself as a football program.

And it’s not going to get any easier next year either. In 2018, IU still has the Big Ten east schedule, an improving Purdue, a Minnesota team that struggled this season but has PJ Fleck rowing the boat, Iowa who keeps plodding along with 7-8 win seasons each year, and in out-of –conference play, there’s Virginia, who made a bowl game in Bronco Mendenhall’s second season, a trip to FIU, who’s been resurgent under Butch Davis, and Ball State. With all the losses for IU, there’s potential for 2018 to be a very long season.

The 2017 season shouldn’t have ended this way. Not for Tegray Scales, who has been as consistent as any football player over the course of 4 years at IU. Not for Simmie Cobbs Jr., who came back from injury better than ever and was a bright spot on offense. And not for the other seniors who anchored this defense and turned this into a top-30 unit nationally – Greg Gooch, Rashard Fant, Chris Covington, and Chase Dutra, to name a few.

On the other hand, Purdue could be coming back to where it was under the Joe Tiller era – a program with an identity on offense and a stout defense to go along with it. And this could have a ripple effect on recruiting for the Hoosiers as well.

Yes, there is a chance IU could get a bowl bid with their 5-7 record. Yes, they should still go to a bowl if offered the bid. But it shouldn’t hide the fact that after today, Indiana football has a lot of questions about its future – both immediate and long-term.