On Saturday at Beaver Stadium the Hoosier defense opened the game with a strong sequence. IU forced Penn State to go three-and-out while losing three yards on the drive. Frankly, it doesn’t get much better than that, especially against an offense ranked as the 11th-best in the nation by SP+.
Then, suddenly, things turned around for the Nittany Lions. Penn State punter Blake Gillikin sent it away as usual, got some hang time on it and forced IU returner Whop Philyor to make a choice — not the easiest thing to do when you’ve got a handful of opposing players barrelling toward you at full speed. Philyor made the wrong one.
Instead of getting away from the ball, letting the Nittany Lions down it, and getting the Hoosier offense on the field, he hung around. Now he may or may not have touched the ball depending on who you talk to but the only opinion that mattered at the time was the opinion of the referees. They deemed he touched it and Penn State recovered the “fumble” afterward.
If you’d like to, you can chalk that up to IU getting the shaft from the officiating crew. That’s pretty easy. On the other hand, a phrase was brought up in discussion amongst the CQ staff that I think is very fitting in this situation: “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
It was a mistake that was uncharacteristic of the Hoosiers, particularly under head coach Tom Allen, who has put a specific emphasis on the quality of his special teams units. Philyor’s process on the play should have been a simple one, as it is for every punt returner in that situation.
“You just have to get away from it,” Allen said. “When you decide not to field it, you know you just got to get away.”
That was just the first in what would ultimately become a series of events that would push the Hoosiers behind the Nittany Lions.
As the game went on Penn State would score a touchdown with an ineligible receiver downfield. The Nittany Lions would also knock Whop Philyor out of the game on a play that could have easily been called targeting. On the same play they recovered a fumble because, shockingly, Philyor fumbled the ball while the two defenders were trying to pop his head like a zit. Not going to hold that against him.
In the second half IU long snapper Sean Wracher made a really bad mistake that allowed PSU to score a touchdown and veteran receiver Donovan Hale got a case of the dropsies at seemingly the worst possible time.
These things, all of them, are the types of things that have traditionally sunk Indiana in its attempt to upend one of the best teams in the Big Ten. Injuries to key players, stupid turnovers, poor officiating and missed opportunities are all common themes for the program.
This time, however, felt different. It was different. The Hoosiers were in the game until the end and it wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t because their opposition was playing poorly either. Penn State was firing on all cylinders for a significant portion of the afternoon, got plenty of breaks and somehow the Hoosiers were only down three points with just under 11 minutes remaining in the game.
That’s what’s different about this Hoosier squad — it’s good enough, talented enough to overcome its mistakes. IU doesn’t need to play a flawless game to beat a team like Penn State. You never want to lose a game, but even in this defeat there were signs of progress for the program which is something that Allen touched on postgame:
“If you don’t see it, I think you’re not paying much attention. I think there’s no doubt. Get on the road and those are tough places to play and, and we’re right there. You talk about the progress you go through and how you build a program. This season we won games in the past that we’ve not been able to finish on against other teams and now we’re playing highly-ranked teams and right there with them as well. It doesn’t have the same feel to me.”
With the game in the rearview mirror it feels like it was a game that the Hoosiers should have won, which hasn’t truly been the case very often against the top teams in the conference in the past. In fact, The Math (read: SP+) backs that up. According to the model Penn State had a postgame win expectancy of 27 percent.
Of course the Nittany Lions more or less iced the game with a nine-minute, 18-play drive that spanned 75 yards for a touchdown, but there were moments in which the game could’ve easily gone the other way. On that drive Penn State converted twice on third down and twice on fourth down, including the touchdown that made the score 34-24.
If the Hoosiers make a stop on any of those plays they theoretically get the ball back needing a field goal to tie the game with enough time to make it happen.
Taking all of this into consideration — the mistakes, the miscalls, the fight to stay in the game — I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, despite the outcome being a loss, this performance establishes Indiana as a team that’s for real.
As Indiana has become more nationally relevant in recent weeks people have been quick to point out that the Hoosiers haven’t beaten a team with a winning record this season, trying to discount what they’ve done so far this year. Sure, that’s true at the moment, but now those same Hoosiers have gone into one of the best atmospheres in all of college football, played a top 10 team in the country, looked like the better team at times and come away with a narrow loss despite facing adversity throughout the game.
After Saturday’s game, I’m more confident than ever in what Tom Allen is building in Bloomington and that #9WINDIANA isn’t just a bit or a Twitter thing, but an inevitability. They have three games left in this campaign and need to win two. This weekend they’re seven-point underdogs at home against a weird Michigan team. That’s a winnable game. They close out the regular season against Purdue, a school that has also played football this season and might be starting the mascot at quarterback in the Old Oaken Bucket game. That’s very winnable. Tack on a bowl game likely against a mid-tier Power 5 opponent and the path to nine wins is pretty open.
This isn’t the same old Indiana football team. It’s not even close. This is a team that is capable of playing with anybody (non-Ohio State division, good Lord Ohio State is good) and deserves to be supported fervently.
Tom Allen’s Indiana Hoosiers are here and they’re legit. Saturday proved that.