Following a 28-21 season-ending loss to Purdue (6-6, 5-4 B1G) in the Old Oaken Bucket Game, Indiana (5-7, 2-7 B1G) redshirt junior receiver Nick Westbrook fought back the tears. He was just asked what this IU program must do to reach the next step.
The Hoosiers had just seen the Old Oaken Bucket disappear into Boilermaker hands for the second consecutive season — and the first time in Bloomington since 2011. As Purdue raced the Bucket over to its fans, redshirt sophomore husky Marcelino Ball knelt on the field for so long that IU’s Marching Band was about to perform.
“We just have to choose to do it,” Westbrook said. “We just have to choose to be great and realize we are a great team.”
It had been a realization that matured into a pair of bowl appearances under Kevin Wilson in 2015 and 2016, a legitimate sign of progress for an Indiana football program that has 11 bowl appearances in 131 years of competition. But in the past two years, the majority of contributing players from Wilson’s teams either graduated or pursued NFL ambitions. New coaches and new players have replaced them. Indiana has since experienced two demoralizing defeats to Purdue and subsequent 5-7 seasons. The Hoosiers are incredibly young and inexperienced, and the aforementioned realization by Westbrook marches on for another year.
“Just having that confidence in yourself to realize you are good enough to be a great team in the Big Ten East. The toughest division there is. Having these young guys, who aren’t as confident in themselves, going into this offseason, focused on building that confidence. Realizing how good of a player you really are.”
Saturday’s loss to Purdue exposed the same weaknesses that Indiana had battled all season. Untimely penalties derailed the Hoosiers as they tried to climb back against the Boilermakers. It started on Purdue’s first scoring drive, when a late hit by Allen Stallings erased a 3rd-down stop by the IU defense and allowed Purdue to extend the drive and eventually take a 7-0 lead with 5:43 remaining in the first quarter.
“The one was huge,” Allen said of Stallings’ penalty. “We were off the field. They’re kicking long field goal, going for it on fourth down. Long ways to go. Gave them a first down on roughing the passer. To me, that’s undisciplined. They just can’t be.”
The miscues continued. The Hoosiers battled on Saturday, as they have all season despite a few devastating injuries and the nation’s 19th-youngest team on paper. True freshman running back Stevie Scott continued to break records by tying the game at 7-7 with an eight-yard touchdown run with 10:52 in the first half. Just as Indiana seemed to be back on level footing against its bitter rival, Purdue’s electric receiver Rondale Moore connected with quarterback David Blough for 56 yards and hand the Boilermakers a 14-7 halftime lead. IU true freshman safety Devon Matthews fell down on the play, and sophomore Raheem Layne missed the tackle.
The clearest example of Indiana’s undisciplined youth was showcased early in the fourth quarter with the Hoosiers trailing, 21-7. Matthews brought down Moore for a loss, setting up a 3rd-and-20 for Purdue on its own 7-yard line. Except Matthews celebrated with a ‘throat-slash,’ and handed the Boilermakers an automatic first down. Purdue’s drive elapsed half of the game’s fourth quarter, and despite cutting its deficit to 21-14 with 7:33 remaining on a 23-yard run by Peyton Ramsey, Indiana was unable to mount its comeback.
“The other one with Devon Matthews, I was shocked he was the guy that got called,” Allen said. “I don’t know what he did. Immature mistake. One of our best kids in terms of doing everything we ask, the way he handles his business. That was costly to me.”
IU’s 24 seniors were honored during pregame festivities Saturday, and the 17 true freshmen that have appeared this season will begin to replace them. The Kevin Wilson era in Bloomington set an expectation for bowl appearances. It is Tom Allen’s task to restore the Hoosiers back to that step, which could begin with potential personnel changes in the offseason. Allen, who is both the head coach and defensive coordinator, said postgame that he is considering of handing the defensive coordinator position to someone else.
“Definitely something I’ve been thinking about because of all the responsibilities that fall into this position,” Allen said. “Now that I’ve done it for a couple years, feel like I understand the time demands. There’s no questions about it, as I’ve talked about, even last year saying there’s going to come a time when I need to do that so I can be the head coach of the team.”
This Indiana program must mature in order for it to progress. It certainly will in age, given the amount of true and redshirt freshmen that started for the Hoosiers this season. It must fully mature in depth, which Allen suspects will only take another two years as IU continues historic levels of recruiting. There are endless questions, but scarce answers as Indiana begins its second consecutive offseason of disappointment and reflection.
“Just left a really hurting and disappointed locker room,” Allen said. “A lot of tears, a lot invested by our seniors, a lot invested by our players and coaches. Just not the result we wanted.”