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The biggest games in IU football history, ranked (Part 1)

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You can make the case that Saturday’s game is one of the four biggest in program history

University of Indiana Hoosiers vs Northwestern University Wildcats
Indiana quarterback Trent Green runs the ball during a game at Northwestern on Oct. 6, 1990.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Allsport/Getty Images

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at IU’s biggest games in program history.)

On Saturday, No. 9 Indiana (4-0) will walk into Ohio Stadium to face No. 3 Ohio State with the Hoosiers sitting alone in first place in the Big Ten East, just ahead of the second-place Buckeyes.

Just like we all predicted in the offseason.

Since the dawn of the First Take era of sports media, and probably even before that if we’re being honest, conversations about sports have been saturated with, and often reduced to, hyperbole.

Must-win games. Can’t-miss recruits. Legacy-defining losses. Catch-of-the-year candidates that seem to happen weekly.

But it’s not hyperbole to say that IU’s upcoming game at Ohio State is one that has some of the highest stakes of any game ever in the history of IU football – or at least one that could potentially open some of college football’s heaviest, hardest-to-reach, most heavily guarded doors.

Calling something a “big game” is both subjective and relative.

And identifying the number of big games for a team that plays in the Big Ten East is like cruising down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and pointing out “big houses.”

In both cases, you can almost always look around and point out at least five of them.

Even for bad teams – something IU has been, objectively, in at least half of its existence given that IU has won three or fewer games in 61 of the 122 seasons in which it has played college football – playing Ohio State is always a big game.

But there’s a difference between the kind of Big Game against Ohio State where you’re 4-0 after eking by FCS Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky, and where Dan Dakich is hosting the ShopRite version of College GameDay in the parking lot (a la 2015), and 2020’s version of a Very Big Game against Ohio State, where a potential win could launch IU into the top five of the AP poll and bring the Hoosiers within four wins of the College Football Playoff (heck, even three as long as the one loss doesn’t come in the Big Ten Championship).

IU has already beaten Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State – a triumvirate of wins that the Hoosiers have never before accomplished in the same season, in large part because they had only beaten Penn State once prior to this season.

In fact, pick any combination of the three aforementioned schools, along with Ohio State, and IU had only beaten multiple of those four teams in the same season on just three occasions before 2020.

IU beat Michigan and Michigan State in 1958 and 1967.

In 1987, IU beat Ohio State and Michigan.

That’s it. That’s the list.

A potential sweep of the four schools that finished in the top four of the Big Ten East, in some order, in 2015, 2017 and 2018 wouldn’t just be threading the needle while sewing a historic season in Bloomington, it would be the equivalent of melting the Old Brass Spittoon in order to create the needle itself, then splintering part of the Old Oaken Bucket to form the thread.

In half of IU’s seasons all-time, it hasn’t eclipsed three wins. This season, it has three wins against brand-name programs, which means something, regardless of whether or not those schools have played like brand-name programs this season.

It means something because it has paved the way for IU’s game on Saturday to fall on the short list of the biggest games in program history – arguably one of the three biggest ever.

To put the Week 12 IU at Ohio State game in context, CQ put together a list of the biggest games in IU football history, in terms of what was at stake for the Hoosiers at kickoff and with conference and national implications in mind.

This is obviously subjective, but the goal was to make it objective by asking: going into a game, which potential wins would mean the most for IU?

If you think we missed a game or if you want to share your rankings of the biggest IU football games ever, let us know on Twitter @CrimsonQuarry.

15. Nov. 10, 2012 vs. Wisconsin

What was at stake: A potential head-to-head tiebreaker over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Leaders division with the top two teams in the division ineligible for the postseason

This one is a weird one, and it was always weird – even in the moment.

I don’t think anyone in Bloomington – IU fans included – thought the 4-5 Hoosiers were going to beat Wisconsin on that fateful Saturday eight years ago.

But, perhaps not entirely dissimilar from this year, very unique circumstances allowed IU to theoretically play for a spot in the Big Ten Championship in mid-November.

This year, it’s because IU is crescendoing as a program under Tom Allen amid a pandemic, while Penn State’s best player opted out and its top two running backs were out for health reasons; because the field judge ruled Michael Penix Jr.’s two-point conversion was good in real time; because Mark Dantonio retired super late in the coaching carousel because he wanted that sweet, sweet retainment bonus; and because Michigan is about to spontaneously combust at any moment.

In 2012, IU was, in theory, potentially playing for a spot in the Big Ten Championship because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for the postseason for very different types of sins, which meant that if IU (2-3 Big Ten) beat Wisconsin (3-2 Big Ten), the Hoosiers had a shot at a third-place finish in the Big Ten Leaders division, which for one year only, would come with a Big Ten Championship Game berth.

Instead, what happened was Wisconsin threw the ball just seven times, completing only four of those passes for 41 yards, because, why the hell wouldn’t you run the ball 41 times when you’re Wisconsin in 2012 and when Indiana was Indiana in 2012?

On a yards-per-rush basis, the Wisconsin player who was the least-effective runner that day averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored a touchdown. The player with the next-worst average was a guy named Montee Ball and he ran for 198 yards and three tuddies.

Melvin Gordon was Wisco’s third-string back at the time and he was only four yards shy of 100, which would’ve given the Badgers three 100-yard backs in the game, as Wisconsin’s rushing attack pounded IU’s slim Big Ten Championship Game hopes that never should’ve existed into 1,000 tiny pieces, one 15-yard rush at a time.

14. 2016 Foster Farms Bowl vs. Utah

What was at stake: IU’s fourth bowl win ever; its first bowl win in 25 seasons; its first seven-win season in nine years; a win in Tom Allen’s first game as a college head coach

Given where Tom Allen’s tenure at IU is at in Year 4 and the nature of how it started with Allen coaching his first game as head coach in the Foster Farms Bowl, this game is interesting in hindsight. Utah was ranked No. 19 in the final CFP rankings, so the first game of Allen’s head coaching career could’ve been IU’s first bowl win in 25 years and against a opponent ranked by a major rankings system.

A win would’ve marked a 7-6 season – IU’s first since 2007.

With the unexpected nature of IU’s split with former coach Kevin Wilson, the angst soon to be created by Wilson joining Ohio State’ coaching staff and the uncertainty of IU hiring Allen, a first-time head coach, without the school pursuing any sort of coaching search, a win in the Foster Farms Bowl could’ve perhaps paid unquantifiable dividends for all parties, and it could’ve given Allen an extra half-step of a head start towards the Year 4 success his program is now enjoying.

13. 2007 Insight Bowl vs. Oklahoma State

What was at stake: IU’s first bowl win in 16 seasons; its first eight-win season in 14 years

After IU’s last bowl game under Bill Mallory in 1993, here’s how many games IU won until its next bowl appearance: six, two, three, two, four, four, three, five, three, two, three, four and five.

That’s more than a decade of play largely filled with IU teams that were two, three, or four games away from bowl consideration, let alone stuck on the cusp at five wins. For the college football programs that are in the fat part of the bell curve nationally and historically, most are probably due for one or two special seasons every decade. “Special” doesn’t have to mean a national championship, or even College Football Playoff contention, but maybe it’s going 9-3 with one or two pretty memorable wins.

But for IU, nine wins is the ceiling. I hope that changes, but that’s what five generations of history has told us. IU won nine games in 1945 and 1967, and that’s the best the Hoosiers have ever done in the win column.

On average, it happens once ever 60 years or so.

All of this goes to say that when IU made the Insight Bowl in 2007 in the first year under Bill Lynch, it had the chance to go 8-5 after ending a 13-year bowl drought.

That wasn’t a particularly good Oklahoma State team that IU lost to – the Cowboys also finished the year 7-6 – but 8-5 is still 8-5, and eight wins goes a lot farther in Bloomington than it does in most places, especially coming off of the bowl drought the Hoosiers had just experienced.

12. Nov. 6, 1993 at No. 19 Penn State

What was at stake: An 8-1 start to the season (5-1 Big Ten); IU’s first win ever against Penn State

IU started the 1993 campaign with a 7-1 record, with its lone loss in September or October coming at home against No. 23 Wisconsin. The Hoosiers then rattled off four Big Ten wins in a row, including a home shutout against No. 22 Michigan State.

Next up was a trip to Happy Valley to play No. 19 Penn State. Going into the weekend, Ohio State was 5-0, Wisconsin was 4-1 and Penn State was 2-2 – these were the eventual top-three finishers in the conference – so at 4-1, Indiana was very much in the mix.

A win at Beaver Stadium would’ve vaulted the Hoosiers to 8-1 overall (5-1 Big Ten) and likely a top-15 ranking heading into a trip to No. 5 Ohio State the following week – a game IU only lost by six.

This is the kind of season that Penn State, Michigan and sometimes Michigan State have gotten used to in the Big Ten East – seasons where, when the weather starts to get cold and the calendar flips to November, they’re in contention for the division title, even if they’re chasing Ohio State.

Ultimately, the Hoosiers finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the Big Ten in 1993.

11. Nov. 4, 1944 at No. 3 Ohio State

What was at stake: A potential 6-1 start to the season (4-1 Western Conference); a win against the highest-ranked opponent in school history

A regular-season game from 1944 is tough to evaluate by modern-day standards because the Western Conference (now the Big Ten) didn’t have divisions or a championship game, and its teams didn’t participate in any bowl games.

So it’s hard to evaluate what the potential was for an IU football team when it lived in a house with six-foot ceilings.

The Hoosiers started the season with a 5-1 record, having only lost to Illinois in its conference opener and having beaten Nebraska 54-0 in a non-conference game. Did you know that IU has beaten Nebraska more times in football than Nebraska has beaten IU?

IU started the season unranked, but climbed its way to No. 15 when it visited No. 3 Ohio State in November – some similar circumstances as this season. With a 3-1 Western Conference record and playing unbeaten Ohio State, IU had a chance to play for a conference title by beating a national power.

Instead, IU lost back-to-back games and finished the season with a 7-3 record (4-3 Western Conference).

10. 2020 Gator Bowl vs. Tennessee

What was at stake: The realization of a prophecy projected by a group of wise oracles after a couple of pitchers at a bar in Lincoln Park or Broad Ripple

A Gator Bowl win against Tennessee, which could’ve been achieved by IU sending the hands team out on the field for that fateful kickoff (or several other tactical decisions), could’ve led to the greatest called shot in sports history since Babe Ruth’s legendary home run call.

Look, I don’t pretend to be a part of last year’s Crimson Quarry staff that created #9Windiana. All the credit for the hashtag and the shirts goes to Kyle and Chris and Connor, and it would’ve been incredible if they would’ve spoken that nine-win season into existence as Tom Allen and his staff raised the talent level in Bloomington, combined those players with the right coaching minds, and then took advantage of about as favorable of a schedule as a Big Ten East team can get.

Maybe IU sneaks into one of the last few spots of the final AP poll last year with a 9-4 record.

Not only would a Gator Bowl win have ended IU’s 29-year drought without winning a bowl game, but the sustained buzz and hype around IU football would’ve arguably reached its highest point ever in the history of mankind, when adjusted for social media.

9. 1993 Independence Bowl vs. No. 22 Virginia Tech

What was at stake: A 9-3 season; IU’s fourth bowl win ever; two bowl wins in three seasons

Going back to my earlier point about nine wins being IU’s ceiling as a program, the 1993 Independence Bowl was a chance for IU to win nine games in a season for just the third time in school history.

So, regardless of whether or not IU were to finish that season ranked in the final AP poll, and never mind the fact that the Hoosiers were in a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big Ten, the 1993 season would’ve likely gone down in history as one of the five best in IU history.

If IU had beaten Virginia Tech to finish 9-3, its only losses would’ve come against No. 23 Wisconsin, No. 19 Penn State and No. 5 Ohio State, with the last two coming on the road in a one-possession game.

8. 1990 Peach Bowl vs. Auburn

What was at stake: IU’s third bowl win ever; IU’s first-ever Peach Bowl win; two bowls wins in three seasons

It’s weird looking back at IU’s 1990 season. There were positives like a Peach Bowl appearance, multiple weeks ranked in the AP Top 25, a 4-0 start to the season and an Old Oaken Bucket win against Purdue.

But there was also a three-game losing streak, a 3-4-1 conference record and two games against ranked opponents that weren’t particularly close.

There was even a tie against Ohio State, which, what are you even supposed to do with that?

But still, IU played Auburn in the Peach Bowl and a win would’ve given the Hoosiers a Peach Bowl win over an SEC opponent, a seven-win season (in a schedule with just 11 total games) and a win in each of its last two bowl appearances.

We’ll be back tomorrow with Part 2 of the biggest games in IU football history.