Frankly, the scoreboard didn’t matter. Even as IU trailed at the time to a UConn team it was supposed to crush, what mattered more were the three people sitting near the 50-yard line.
Coy Cronk lay on the ground, holding his right ankle. He had been fallen on from behind, and rolled onto his back with a gruesome twist of his foot.
The aircast was on his leg immediately and the cart left streaks on the turf as it sprinted toward the IU logo at midfield.
As Cronk was lifted into the cart his teammates left the sideline and circled around him. They all tapped him on the shoulder. No one told the players to go out. It was instinct.
Cronk was IU’s starting left tackle from the moment he arrived at IU. Saturday’s game was his 40th career start. He’s only missed one start in his career. He’s played alongside NFL-bound offensive lineman such as Dan Feeney, Wes Martin and Brandon Knight. This year, it was his turn.
“Now we’re playing for him,” wide receiver Nick Westbrook said. “This season goes out to him now.”
Cronk was in the locker room to greet his team at halftime. He had a boot on his foot stretching all the way to just under his knee, his leg resting on a scooter.
He sat up in the cart as he was driven off, looking back toward the field the whole way. At least with pads on, it might the last time he sees it.
“He just saying, ‘Keep fighting boys, fight for me,” Westbrook said of Cronk’s words as he left the field.
Minor setback!! Proud of my teammates who played their hearts out thank you to Hoosier nation for the support
— Coy Cronk (@CoyCronk) September 21, 2019
Westbrook said that head coach Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said before the game to keep in mind who each player was playing for back home. But suddenly that has new meaning. Now there’s a teammate, a teammate who has embodied what Allen has tried to build in Bloomington.
“I love that kid, he’s so tough and given so much to this place,” Allen said. “He came in when I got here. He was in that initial class. We started together. Just got a special relationship.”
No official diagnosis was given on Cronk other than Allen confirming the injury to his ankle. There is yet to be a timetable determined, but Allen seemed to be preparing to lose Cronk for the season.
“I love that kid,” Allen said. “Man, he’s just so tough and he’s given so much to this place, so I hope it’s not the end of the season.”
With Cronk out, IU tried multiple combinations on the offensive line Saturday. Caleb Jones and Matthew Bedford both saw time at left tackle. If Cronk is out for the season, Allen said that Bedford, a promising true freshman, will have to burn his redshirt.
IU would score later on that drive, after Cronk was carted off, on a Peyton Ramsey to Whop Philyor touchdown pass. IU took the lead without the star left tackle. It was the start of 38 unanswered points as IU beat UConn 38-3.
With Cronk out, IU was left without its starting quarterback (Michael Penix) and left tackle. In a game against UConn, where IU was favored by 27.5 points, that didn’t matter.
IU saw the type of rebound it needed following the 51-10 loss to Ohio State. Against UConn, IU saw the running game finally gain traction. Stevie Scott had a season-high 97 yards on 21 carries, adding a late touchdown as well. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry as part of a running back group that averaged 4.5. IU finished with 178 rushing yards.
“Good to bounce back from last week’s performance and thought our guys responded the way I hoped they would,” Allen said.
Ramsey put up a stat line resembling more the performance he had in relief against Eastern Illinois than his start against Ohio State. Ramsey only had four incompletions coming against three touchdown passes. He threw for 247 yards. The only blemish was a second-half interception.
Peyton Hendershot caught a touchdown for the third straight game, joining Philyor and Westbrook as the receivers to find the endzone.
IU outgained UConn 430-145, including limiting UConn to 51 rushing yards. The Hoosiers converted eight of 10 third downs while holding UConn to 3-for-14.
IU now heads to Michigan State, facing one of the nation’s top run defenses. Suddenly a running game that finally found traction will face its toughest test, without its best blocker.
Now IU will take a reshaped offensive line into East Lansing, and it still isn’t clear who will be the quarterback with the potential for Penix, who wore pads for the entire UConn game despite never throwing a pass even in warmups, to return.
IU might be left with Bedford, a true freshman, getting his first carer start at Spartan Stadium. Regardless of how the offensive line shakes out, Cronk will be on the sideline to cheer on and help his young replacement, but he won’t be next to them where he’s needed most.
As the Hoosiers leave Indiana for the first time this season, their senior leader won’t be there.
“He means a lot to our program,” Allen said. “He always will.”