A season ago, Indiana receiver Nick Westbrook was on the field for only one play. It was the opening kickoff against Ohio State, a play in which IU’s leading receiver tore his ACL and ended his season.
Westbrook was forced to watch Indiana’s 2017 season from afar. The Hoosiers withstood demoralizing losses and a complicated quarterback situation, en route to defeating Illinois and Rutgers to set-up a showdown for bowl eligibility with Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game.
Indiana didn’t just lose to Purdue a season ago — the Hoosiers didn’t even show up. The Boilermakers led 31-10 before a late IU resurgence aided the final score. Purdue claimed the Bucket for the first time since 2012, and while Westbrook had very little to do with it, the bitter taste in his mouth remained.
“That’ll just be the big thing,” Westbrook said of his message this year. “To explain, ‘you guys don’t want this to end. Trust me. There was a bitter taste in my mouth last year and that was the first time I’ve ever experienced it and I hated it so much.’ Just to explain to these guys you don’t want that at all. We want to be playing an extra month.”
In the grand scheme of concepts such as program building, Indiana’s 2018 season is identically similar to its last. An inspiring start in non-conference play was erased by uninspiring performances against Michigan State and Iowa, as well as emotional defeats to Penn State, Minnesota, and Michigan. But despite this, and despite widespread youth and injury, the Hoosiers are in the same place they have been for the fourth consecutive season: defeat Purdue, and bowl, — lose to Purdue, and season over. Indiana is 2-1 in those scenarios, and after four consecutive Bucket wins, IU’s premier trophy case sits empty.
“So I think that anything in life, when you have it, you take it for granted,” Tom Allen said of the Bucket. “When you lose it, you realize how special it really was and really is. I think that can be true of a lot of things for sure, and I think it’s definitely true in this rivalry.”
The notion of ‘progress’ for this Indiana program is a conversation for next week — or possibly later. IU’s season, again, comes down to its rival. Careers will be ended on Saturday in Bloomington. It could be the likes of longtime IU safety Jonathan Crawford, who will start his 50th game in his four years at IU on Saturday against Purdue. Crawford will break the program record for games played if Indiana defeats Purdue and appears in a bowl game. There are 25 IU seniors, with 18 contributing this year.
As aforementioned, IU football does appear to be stuck in neutral on the surface, although four consecutive seasons of playing for bowl eligibility is a notable improvement to Indiana’s 14-34 record from 2010-14. Every season is different, however, even if the results are eerily similar. The Hoosiers are historically young, with numerous starting spots being filled by promising freshmen or inexperienced upperclassmen. IU head coach Tom Allen says his program will likely reach its desired depth in two years and in return, produce tangible improvement.
Nonetheless, a victory on Saturday will signal a successful season for how Indiana’s season has gone. It will be no small task, as Purdue has experienced a newfound resurgence under heavily suited coach Jeff Brohm in the form of resounding victories against Ohio State, Iowa, and Boston College. The Boilermakers are reeling, though, following a 41-10 loss to Minnesota and 47-44 defeat to Wisconsin. They too, must regroup and condense their season into a single game. In the realm of theory, Indiana and Purdue are meeting Saturday at a crossroads for rival supremacy.
“So you get it all wrapped up into one,” Allen said of the Bucket game. “So it makes for a pretty exciting opportunity and atmosphere and a chance to be able to accomplish things that you want to accomplish as we build this program. We want to be in a position where we’re climbing and growing every single year, and then that’s the objective is we build and keep recruiting and putting class upon class upon class, it’s going to be critical.”
Allen seems to have found a generic formula to win games with this young Indiana team: force field goals, create takeaways, establish the run, and pose a threat downfield. In successful games this season, such as last week’s 31-20 loss at No. 4 Michigan, the Hoosiers have followed this. Purdue has been the more impressive team in 2018, garnering national headlines and featuring an explosive offense in senior quarterback David Blough and electric freshman receiver Rondale Moore. It is the most lethal Purdue offense in recent memory. Indiana will welcome the return of starting junior linebacker Reakwon Jones, who is expected to play after missing the past two weeks. Freshman husky Cam Jones will miss the first half after his targeting ejection in Ann Arbor, however.
For those such as Westbrook, who will academically graduate but could play another season in Bloomington, Saturday’s all-or-nothing matchup with Purdue is nothing new. But this time, Westbrook will have a say in the matter.
“Over the last couple years I would say, it’s just, embrace it,” Westbrook said of the message. “It could be, potentially, the last game. You have to understand that what we’re fighting for is this bowl game. Just make sure people know what we’re fighting for. When you have a strong why it makes it a lot easier to go out there and play the game. A lot of extra motivation.”