EAST LANSING, Mich. — There were tears in the locker room, and Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen said there should have been.
“It’s hard to face them in the locker room knowing how hard they played, look ’em in the eye,” Allen said.
While IU was close yet again, it ended in disappointment, again. But much as it resembled IU collapses of years past, something seemed different.
Michael Penix was back after missing two starts with an injury. He returned on the road in the Big Ten, by far the toughest road environment he’s ever played in.
“Pregame, I felt pretty good so coach made the decision to let me play,” Penix said. “I prepared, keeping my head in the game, just make sure I knew all the plays, knew all the reads. All the times I wasn’t in practice I was mentally preparing. Making sure I was always on top of the game.
“It just took a lot of trusting and everything in my rehab,” Penix said. “Just make sure my body was good just protecting myself. A lot of encouragement from my teammates as well.”
His first drive was far from perfect as IU quickly went three-and-out. But he settled in. Against one of the toughest defenses in the nation, he gave IU a chance.
He gave them a lead early in the fourth quarter and tied the game in the final two minutes, until it all fell apart in a fashion all too reminiscent of IU in years past. A field goal in the final 10 seconds lifted No. 25 Michigan State over IU in what ultimately ended as 40-31 loss.
“The gap’s getting closer and closer,” Allen said. “It’s just disappointing because these guys, they’re so stinking close. We’re not going to get discouraged. Disappointed, but not discouraged.”
“We didn’t show up just to compete, we came to win.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) September 29, 2019
IU took the lead in the fourth quarter after scoring 10 unanswered points to start the second half. Donovan Hale made a one-handed touchdown catch with a cornerback draped over him and holding his leg. IU took its first lead, 24-21.
IU’s defense immediately came out an forced a three-and-out before the game flipped.
Whop Philyor returned the ensuing punt deep into Michigan State territory, before a special teams penalty brought it back — a long way back. Suddenly IU went from having the ball near the Michigan State 30-yard line to starting at its own 11.
Penix overthrew Philyor by inches over the middle on what could have been an 89-yard touchdown, and suddenly IU had to punt. A good return and another special teams penalty allowed Michigan State to start at the IU 26-yard line, a favor the Hoosiers couldn’t afford to give.
Michigan State promptly scored, and took the lead back.
The clock read 3:27 when Penix took the field with a chance to change a narrative. He got the help of Spartan penalties after the same mistakes had taken away the lead. Penix led the most important drive of his career, leading IU down the field and capping it off with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Philyor, tying the game at 31.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) September 29, 2019
He had given the clutch drive to stray away from the narrative of years past. And then it came back.
Michigan State quickly drove down the field, a 30-yard run from Brian Lewerke taking it all the way down to the 1-yard line. Matt Coughlin made the game-winning field goal with five seconds to play.
But it wasn’t the same old Indiana.
Sure, IU blew a fourth-quarter lead and tied the game late before blowing it both times. But it felt different. It was in this instance, with the quarterback the program can and will build around, that IU took a positive step, not just another time coming up short.
Allen wants his team to remember how much this hurt, but he knows how much positive he has to take away.
It was a game where the youth shined, showing the potential for the future of the program. Penix completed 33 of 42 passes, including a school-record 20 straight, for 286 yards and three touchdowns, coupled with no interceptions.
“To me the biggest thing is being able to do what he did in this environment with really just a couple games under his belt,” Allen said. “Really nothing similar in terms of the opponent, he played a little bit in the Penn State game last year, but not on the road.”
True freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen broke up four passes. When Mullen was guarding Darnell Stewart, Michigan State’s leading receiver, Stewart didn’t have a catch. That included two straight pass breakups in the endzone.
“I executed on the big plays,” Mullen said. “I never get nervous, scared, I just come here to play. They put on their pads just like I put on my pads.”
True freshman Matthew Bedford started at left tackle in place of Coy Cronk, and Michigan State only had one sack.
“I thought it might be a rough day at the office for him just because of who he was going against.” Allen said of Bedford. “There were some times in practice last week if you told me he was going to come out and start against Michigan State, I would have been, ‘Uh oh.'”
Instead Bedford stepped up and was a rock at left tackle, a key piece in IU putting up better offensive numbers than anyone against Michigan State this season. Michigan State allowed 52.2 rushing yards per game coming in; IU had 70. Michigan State allowed 176 passing yards per game coming in; IU had 286. Michigan State allowed 228.2 yards coming in; IU had 356.
Take away a garbage time touchdown and IU was as close as it has been at Spartan Stadium since winning in 2001. Allen said Ohio State would show much IU had closed the gap, but he was two weeks early. Instead that measuring stick was with Penix under center in East Lansing, and it showed IU is building, and getting closer.
“We’re for real, we ain’t going nowhere,” Allen said. “We’re young, third youngest team in the Big Ten, period. You saw how we competed. We didn’t show up just to compete, we came to win.”