Kane Wommack pulled his defense aside to a white board on the sideline. He sat them down and began to diagram what his defense was doing, what Maryland’s offense was doing and what adjustments his defense had to make.
Wommack drew on the board in his neon-orange long sleeve shirt after each first half possession. He had to adjust on the fly just like his defense. Wommack wasn’t anticipating what he saw on the field.
What Wommack and the defense saw from Maryland was nothing close to resembling the team they saw on tape in the week leading up to the game.
The IU defense struggled in the first half. It allowed 21 points and 239 yards in the first half.
Wommack and the defensive staff were the first in the locker room at halftime. He had to make further changes to help his young defense, part of the Big Ten’s third-youngest roster, adjust on the road in a crucial game.
After being hit with plays and concepts they hadn’t seen on film, Wommack didn’t see a frustrated defense. He didn’t see them hanging their heads in the locker room.
“What I loved about our guys is we’d given up 21 points in the first half, we got to the locker room, started talking to them and they were so locked in to, ‘Hey, let’s get it fixed,'” Wommack said. “‘Let’s get this thing going. We know that we can take control of this football game in the second half.’ That, for a young defense, is critically important.”
What Wommack said and changed worked. IU made formational changes which resulted in holding Maryland to 144 yards in the second half and just seven points.
“We found a way to make adjustments in the second half and find a way to flip the script on the production Maryland was able to have,” Wommack said.
Though it wasn’t until the final two drives of the game where the defense shined brightest.
“Being able to finish the game,” Wommack said. “Put it on our shoulders to finish a game. To be able to create two takeaways at the end was really critical for a young defense’s confidence.”
Below is the B1G defensive Team of the Week for week 8! pic.twitter.com/Ef8v0L4WPT
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 21, 2019
Juwan Burgess forced a fumble from Javon Leake and after Maryland got the ball back for one final chance, Reese Taylor sealed the game with an interception.
Three weeks ago against Michigan State, IU’s defense failed to finish in a nearly identical spot. Against Maryland, it strayed from the typical IU football narrative, the narrative that time and time again has ended with IU falling just short.
On this occasion it was IU that made the biggest play in the biggest moment, instead of it coming against them.
It was that ability to finally close out a game that has IU realistically thinking about a bowl game earlier than it seemingly ever has.
Head coach Tom Allen has seen a different dynamic around IU as it returned to Bloomington.
It left Maryland at 5-2, the best seven-game start for IU since 2007.
With five games still to play, IU is one win away from bowl eligibility. IU typically isn’t thinking about going to a bowl game until the final weeks of the season. In the past two years bowl eligibility has come down to the final game. IU lost both times.
It’s hard for Allen and the players not to think about it, especially for the older players who have been so close, yet not close enough throughout their careers.
Yet Allen is trying to keep the focus the same as it’s been all year long. Ahead of all the weak non-conference games, Allen and the players stressed that they weren’t looking ahead. That the upcoming game is the most important game because it is the next one.
And it’s that same approach for how IU is looking toward a bowl game.
“Obviously you win the next game, you win your sixth game and we understand what all that means,” Allen said. “But that is, to me the objective is for us to be at our very best and play our best football in Lincoln, Nebraska on Saturday. And if we continue to focus like that then it takes care of itself.”
Even then, while IU is focused in the present on winning the next game, there are overarching goals beyond that. Getting six wins isn’t all Allen wants out of this team. It’s a young team that has already proven its potential not just for this year but for seasons beyond.
Maryland was a proving ground for Allen’s team. It showed an ability to make adjustments on defense, let alone at quarterback and the offensive line, yet still win a crucial game, the exact time of game where IU has crushed hopes in years past.
It’s why IU is thinking big. Bigger than it has in decades.
“At the beginning of the season we set a goal as a team that we want to win our bowl game,” Allen said. “Not just get to a bowl game. We want to win our bowl game.”