Noise makers were set up along the wall of the IU team room. The players sat down in their black chairs embroidered with a red IU trident logo, preparing for a team meeting.
As they did, head coach Tom Allen turned on the speakers. The noise blared and as Allen came within inches of his players it still was difficult, if possible at all, to hear anything he was saying.
Allen wanted to make his players uncomfortable. He knows that’s what’s coming this weekend.
IU travels to Nebraska this weekend for the first time since it joined the Big Ten. It will step into the Cornhuskers’ version of Memorial Stadium with something quite abnormal facing a traditional football powerhouse: expectations.
It’s an upstart 5-2 Hoosier team as just a two-point underdog per Bovada in one of the nation’s most raucous environments, the one Allen is working to prepare his team for. An environment beyond that which IU saw against Michigan State.
And just as Allen entered East Lansing with question marks looming over the health of the quarterback position, the same ones that follow him to Lincoln.
Allen said in Thursday’s press conference that Michael Penix is yet again a game-time decision. Penix left during the first half of IU’s win over Maryland and didn’t return.
Though this week has far more resembled that of the lead-up to Michigan State when Penix returned from his injury as opposed to weeks against Ohio State and UConn where Penix didn’t throw the football (bar an underhand toss in pregame warmups against UConn).
Penix practiced this week, the extent to which is unknown. Practicing to any extent still places him closer to playing than in the two games Penix missed with injury.
And while he lacks the experience playing in this type of environment, it is Penix who has IU on the doorstep of bowl eligibility, the reason why IU is a program suddenly surrounded by hope and expectations far beyond a typical year.
Should it be Peyton Ramsey, IU has a quarterback who has been there before. Basically.
Ramsey has started at Ohio Stadium and the Big House as well as playing at Beaver Stadium. He’s seen the type of environment he’ll get against Nebraska despite never having been.
His performance against Maryland was among the best, if not the best, of his career at IU. The Nebraska defense is very similar to Maryland’s in terms of yards allowed, also giving up over 390 per game.
It was an emotional postgame scene at Maryland for Ramsey as he received the game ball. Allen and Ramsey both talked about what it has meant for Ramsey to stick with IU despite losing the starting job. He had the option to transfer, and chose not to.
Instead his preparation as if he’s starting each week had him ready to go when his name was called against Maryland. That same preparation is why IU has the luxury of a backup quarterback of starting caliber.
No, Ramsey doesn’t provide the same dynamic spark to the offense as Penix, but his experience has been crucial for IU, in no game more so than the win over Maryland.
IU has remained quiet on Penix’s health, just as it has in his other injury absences. It causes a Nebraska defense that is already struggling to have uncertainty in its preparation. It has to prepare for two different quarterbacks of different skillsets despite running the same offense.
Combine the numbers of Penix and Ramsey and IU’s quarterbacks would be near the top of the Big Ten. They’ve executed a system that has IU one win away from a bowl game with a young team built not just for this year but years to come.
But they aren’t at a bowl game yet. That’s why Allen wants his players to remain uncomfortable. When the noise shifts from artificial to real on Saturday, IU will once again prove more about itself. It doesn’t matter who’s under center.