In the beginning, there was Indiana football. You may not believe it, but it’s true, in a way. Indiana football, at its very core, is an endless struggle against entropy and disintegration. These constant, chaotic, and oft-misguided efforts intrinsically link the Hoosiers to all matter in the Universe. From the weakest force of gravity that binds two particles together to the complex bonds of American sports fandom, at some level we are all just trying to go 9-3 and show marked improvement. This fight against collapse and failure is the natural state of the universe.
I came to this fundamental truth about Indiana while sitting in the stands of Indiana football’s semi-annual trip to Maryland, an utterly nonsensical football game only possible in this post-alignment world. While sitting in a chilly, drab, 60 percent full stadium in the suburban D.M.V. area (that’s DC/MD/VA—the actual DMV is called the “Motor Vehicle Authority”), I realized that Indiana football is essentially a manifestation of Emerson’s Over-Soul or collective unconsciousness. Except it’s not the happy kumbaya feeling. It’s the wiry, gnarly energy of people trying to hold things together. It’s the inescapable specter of mortgages, kids, family, workplace culture, cooking, staying healthy, taxes, and a thousand other things that run through your brain. This is far from Universal Love; it’s often more like Universal Angst. (Note: obviously, one does not need to watch Indiana football to come to this conclusion about human nature.)
Being an Indiana football fan is not akin to being a fan of an unnatural, artificially permanent football powerhouse. Indeed, fans of Ohio State or Alabama often blind themselves to the stark reality of potential failure. It is more human, and thus more relatable, to be a fan of a team like Indiana. Hoosier football fans are constantly aware of the terrifying precipice of dissolution and catastrophe, often hoping merely to survive in a conference of structurally superior teams. It is from these baby steps that more stable forms of matter/college football programs eventually form...until they get complacent and fire everybody after going 4-8. Such is life.
Indiana football is thus a representation of the great burden of all living things: survival. Of course, if the fabric of life is so intrinsically linked to Indiana, do Indiana football and its fans bear this burden well?
Uh, no. It’s hard. Life is hard! Sometimes you’re left screaming at your television at Peyton Ramsey. Sometimes you are desperately defending a six-point lead on the road against a mediocre football team that you should not lose to. Sometimes, and this is the toughest part, your beloved Penix gets hurt in the first half and you are left scrambling for a solution on the fly. This is entropy. Indiana and all other things must endure it.
But why, any sane reader would ask, would you voluntarily spend $25 and five hours of your day attending this football game? Some insightful readers may have also realized that I didn’t even go to Indiana, nor did I attend the University of Maryland. Truthfully, there was no good reason to attend this game, but I’d spent the previous four years of my life going to random Big Ten games and writing about them, and I missed it. As absurd as the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutger has been, there is something vaguely comforting about being able to watch Indiana and Nebraska after a 45-minute ride on public transportation. This Big Ten East experiment is sort of nice if you are a Midwestern college alum transplanted in the overwhelming exhaustion of Washington D.C.
At some level, it’s just impossible to imagine that Tom Allen and his crew came all the way from Bloomington to entertain Marylanders. It is, frankly, an absurd accomplishment in federalism that the Big Ten has any semblance of governing power in Maryland at all. While this probably seems like a very libertarian thing to say, this is more of a statement on feeling very far away from Bloomington, Lincoln, Iowa City, Madison, or even Chicago. Far away on what level? Er, let’s just say all of them! Seriously, I’ve never had to actually live in one of these East Coast megalopolises for longer than a month before, and it takes a lot out of you, especially when you’re from a village of 7,000 people in rural New York and you’re wondering why the hell anyone would move to Washington DC for any reason whatsoever. Thus, it’s nice to see some guy prancing around the sidelines in striped pants. Weird how that works.
In light of this absurdity, it’s only fitting that Indiana/Maryland games have crazy thus far.
2014: big letdown after road win over Mizzou— candy corn liker (@VT_Ben) October 19, 2019
2015: had to fight back from early deficit to stay bowl eligible
2016: the Big Bacon Game
2017: lost to Maryland’s 8th string QB in a wild shootout
2018: won on late FG against interim coach Matt Canada https://t.co/oSW45Jtp2b
This one was no different. Indiana showed it was the better team immediately with a commanding drive that took about two minutes. I found it particularly amusing when Nate Snyder kicked off and the DC sports fans in the audience instinctively perked up to complain. After Indiana proved it was the better team, it spent the rest of the game trying to do Indiana football things like inexplicably allowing big plays, missing tackles, and shriveling into a corn cob on offense.
The hinge point of the game was clearly Penix’s tipped ball interception, which simultaneously prevented Indiana from going up 21-7 and also knocked Penix out for the game. On the Penix question, it’s clear that he’s extremely talented and gives the Indiana offense a different gear. Thus, it’s a good thing extenuating circumstances have never prevented talent from achieving deserved results in the history of time, right?
After this, the natural chaos that swirls around Indiana set in. Maryland, wearing its shapeless, dazzle ship-like uniforms, was entropy personified. The Terps took advantage of the pick and Javon Leake broke off a 60-yard touchdown run to tie the game a few minutes later.
This essentially left the game in the hands of Peyton Ramsey. As a neutral observer, I believe Peyton Ramsey is a good backup quarterback. He runs well, absorbs hits, and can complete passes. That’s something. When Indiana’s offensive line can essentially do whatever it wants—they surrendered one sack for no lost yardage and Stevie Scott averaged six yards per carry—Ramsey is definitely not a bad option. By the end of the day, the Hoosiers still racked up 520 yards and 32 first downs which is...encouraging? The 26-yard touchdown throw to Nick Westbrook to retake the lead? That was alright! The scrambling run on 3rd and 11? That happened! At least it wasn’t unwatchable, for a little bit.
Okay, a lot of it was unwatchable. But I’m going to blame Maryland and the interminable amount of replay reviews for that!
Because Peyton Ramsey is still Peyton Ramsey, things could only go so far. The comically ineffective playcalling/execution from 4th and 4 at the goal line was weak. The second half was a Debordian exercise in short passing and grinding them with Scott, which kinda worked, but was completely unconvincing.
Maryland had two chances to send Indiana into the Chaos Dimension in the fourth quarter. On the first, Javon Leake fumbled inside his own 20. The ensuing Indiana drive was a haunting, Northwestgersian spectacle. Maryland then drove the ball all the way down to the 45. Despite the fact that half the Maryland crowd had seemingly left after the fumble, the game was completely in the balance.
In the mind’s eye of the average Hoosier fan, perhaps the end had already come. Tyrrell Pigrome would hit Leake in stride and the Terps would punch it in with 17 seconds left. Ramsey would get picked off. The dream of #9WINDIANA would die in a far-off suburb of an exhausting, inauthentic metropolis, thrown away by conservative playcalling, unlucky injuries, and the sheer will of fate. Some sports fans think they cannot lose; others are perpetually cursed with the imaginations of their own destruction. It’s very likely that every fan of Hoosier football is in the latter category. As Pigrome wound back his arm and prepared to throw to the many open receivers, the collapse loomed like the Sword of Damocles.
Instead, it was probably the worst throw of Pigrome’s entire career. It sailed several feet above the receiver’s head and directly into the safe, comforting arms of Reese Taylor. Suddenly, in place of the enrapturing agony of imagined defeat, there was solace. Despite the low entertainment value, high amounts of stress, and general incompetency from all sides, there was solace. Maybe that’s what being a college football fan means, in the end. You must always fear the worst, yet hope the unflinching hand of destiny lends you peace.
I was in the press room for Tom Allen’s inaugural appearance at Big Ten Media Days. At the time, I was struck by his matter-of-fact demeanor. I remember he specifically gave some platitudes about how he wasn’t satisfied with Indiana’s inability to make the Rose Bowl since the Johnson administration. Reminding a program of a record of dismal failure since the Vietnam War is not the greatest marketing strategy of all time, but there was no getting around the reality.
It’s always felt like Tom Allen knew exactly what he was getting into when he took this job. There are coaches that walk into jobs with historically bad football programs and act as if they can transform everything in a very short period of time. At heart, Tom Allen seems to be a pragmatist. He’s done everything by the book: better recruiting, better talent development, investment into the long-term future, coordinator changes, dull platitudes. He hasn’t pulled off the big upset against a Big Ten East rival, but he hasn’t lost any egregiously awful games either. And look, for whatever criticisms you might have, Tom Allen’s pragmatic sanctions are often the best way to condense and recover, especially from something as chaotic as the Late Kevin Wilson Era or The Collected History of Indiana Football. On Saturday night, I think this ultimately ended up working out. Indiana was qualitatively better than Maryland. The difference was significant. As a result, better teams usually win more games, even if things don’t go according to plan.
That being said, it’d probably be less stressful for y’all if you got to play a team that passes for one yard again.