Tom Allen walked into the Indiana locker room moments after a familiar 33-28 defeat to No. 18 Penn State. He stared into the eyes of his players. He saw his freshmen, like Stevie Scott, who had just experienced their first, true, gut-wrenching Big Ten defeat. He saw his seniors, like Jonathan Crawford, who can add Saturday’s defeat to the long list of missed opportunities for signature, program-changing upsets.
Allen saw the tears of a program that has been on the brink of monumental upsets for years. This was no exception. Despite leaving first-half points on the field, Indiana took a 21-20 lead on Penn State with 4:03 remaining in the third quarter. And despite a Michael Penix injury, a J-Shun Harris fumble, and two rushing touchdowns from Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, Indiana scored and then recovered an onside kick for an opportunity to win the game in its closing seconds. An improbable drive, started on the IU 42-yard line with 49 seconds remaining, ended in defeat.
“I challenged them in a huge way this week, and they chose to respond,” Allen said. “I thought they played their hearts out. That’s why there’s a lot of tears in that locker room because they played so hard and they did a lot of great things. But the bottom line is we didn’t make enough plays to win the game, and that’s why we have to go back and watch the film and learn from it. But from a perspective of heart and effort and toughness and grit and fight, I’m proud of this football team.”
Saturday was especially heartbreaking for Indiana’s football program. And it came a week after the Hoosiers were embarrassed yet again on homecoming, in a 42-16 blowout loss to Iowa that derailed the momentum established in Columbus. Indiana was back to square one this week, and responded in valiant fashion. Scott ran for 138 yards and two touchdowns, becoming only the third freshman in IU history with three 100-yard games in a season. Penix entered early and showcased his promising arm strength and dual-threat abilities. The Indiana defense forced two turnovers and held McSorley without a touchdown pass for the first time in his 34 career starts.
In Big Ten East games and crossover tests against the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin, the margin of error for Indiana is slim. The Hoosiers, with inferior recruiting capabilities and bleak historical trends, cannot beat themselves. On Saturday, Indiana, yet again, self-destructed its opportunity for an impressive victory. Most of IU’s mistakes came on special teams. Penn State’s K.J. Hamler took the opening kickoff to the Indiana 35-yard line. Johnathan Thomas took a 3rd-quarter kickoff for 94 yards. Harris’ punt return fumble essentially closed Indiana’s window of opportunity until the onside kick was recovered — as McSorley’s touchdown gave Penn State a 33-21 lead with 10:25 remaining.
“To me, it’s really, really frustrating to give up those,” Allen said of kick return yards. “To play so well on offense and defense and give up those kind of return yards. It just makes me want to puke.”
The next opportunity for Allen and Indiana to capture a signature victory will be in Ann Arbor against Michigan. But that game is in a few weeks. The pressing matter for these Hoosiers is Friday night in Minneapolis — against a Gopher team that handed winless Nebraska its first victory. If there is a path to bowl eligibility and success, obtaining a fifth win against Minnesota, before a much-needed bye, is required.
“It makes us stronger,” Marcelino Ball said of another tough loss. “The fight that we put in throughout the game. You know, we’re all sad. We’re all down about it, but at the same time, it makes us stronger. It makes us want it. It shows us that every play matters.”
Allen said postgame that the Hoosiers are not discouraged, despite another demoralizing defeat. Winnable games remain, and so does the goal — returning to the bowl season.
“Our kids are fighters, man,” Allen said postgame. “I looked in that locker room, in those eyes, and I had everybody’s eyes on me. Just left it just now, and I promise you this team is going to keep on fighting. Yeah, they’re hurting, and yeah, they want to win these close games, and we will. It’s a process. I believe in this football team.”