Tiawan Mullen jumped back toward the sideline, raising the football he held in one hand in the air. His teammates swarmed around him to celebrate as a smile stretched across Mullen’s face underneath his white facemask.
As the freshman cornerback continued to emerge, he propelled a team dead-set on changing narratives, changing the story of a team so often left at the bottom of the Big Ten.
“I feel like everybody doubt us,” Mullen said. “I feel like everybody think we’re like the niece in the Big Ten. But we showing everybody that we them.”
When head coach Tom Allen became the head coach at IU, he wrote three numbers on the board. 50, 26 and 10. It had been 50 years since IU won the Big Ten, 26 years since IU won a bowl game and 10 years since IU had a winning season.
“I told our team, and I told our coaches that we were going to accomplish all three of those, and that if you don’t believe that, you need to leave,” Allen said.
Since that day, those numbers have grown to 52, 28 and 12.
In a way, IU’s 34-3 win over Northwestern was an exorcism, rewriting the script with each passing week. The same IU team that has failed to finish or fallen flat under the weight of expectations is now 7-2. It’s the first time IU has beaten Northwestern since 2008, and breaks a five-game losing streak in the all time series.
And it checked the “12” off Allen’s list. IU will have a winning season.
“There’s no questions not a lot of people felt that way or believed in us,” Allen said. “But that’s OK, and that may never matter to us.”
Mullen was set on checking off those numbers as soon as he committed to IU. During his exit interview on his official visit to IU, he wrote down all three numbers for Allen.
“I knew I came 16 hours away from home,” Mullen said. “I told him, ‘We finna get this thing rolling. It wasn’t going to take two years, three years. As soon as I get here we’re going to get the train rolling.'”
As IU’s lead over Northwestern grew, and as it was clear IU would check that 12 off the list, Mullen pulled his head coach aside.
“He grabbed me tonight and said, ‘Coach, this is what I told you we were going to do when we came here,'” Allen said.
Mullen’s rise began in East Lansing, or specifically in the south endzone of Spartan Stadium.
The freshman was covering Darrell Stewart, Michigan State’s leading receiver. On two straight plays, Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke looked Stewart’s way in the endzone, and on two straight plays, Mullen broke up the pass. He didn’t allow a reception at all when he was covering Stewart.
Mullen was just in a situational role early on, a freshman still trying to learn the defense.
After Michigan State, that changed.
Mullen had learned the different coverages he was put into, and his role grew. He rose up the depth chart, quickly becoming a full time starter and IU’s top cornerback option.
As a true freshman.
“He’s a very confident young man,” Allen said. “He just keeps getting better like our team does.”
“If you don’t believe… you need to leave.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) November 3, 2019
The short field was the spark to an early IU lead. The Hoosiers scored 14 points of turnovers in the first half. Penix was 10-for-15 for 162 yards and despite not having thrown for a touchdown, helped put his own spark back into the IU offense as he made his return from injury.
But in what has become a trend looming over Allen and his offense, Penix went to the locker room before halftime. His injury was unclear, he didn’t appear hampered as he ran off the field following Stevie Scott’s second touchdown of the game, Penix’s final play.
In this game, as has been the case virtually all season, it didn’t matter.
Scott would add a third touchdown and eclipse 100 rushing yards for the third time in the past four weeks. After struggling to find footing, let alone usage, in the early stretch of the season, Scott has found his confidence and returned to the running back that climbed from the bottom of the depth chart to a budding star as a freshman.
Those early-season struggles have relented into the bruising back’s third 100 rushing yard performance in the last four games. It was his fourth straight performance with over 100 total yards. He finished with 116 rushing yards against Northwestern along with 20 receiving yards.
He had two rushing scores and a receiving touchdown to bring his career total to 19.
As the season began, teams stacked the box on Scott, forcing Penix in his first games as a starter to beat them with his arm. But as the passing game became established, with both Penix and quarterback Peyton Ramsey, the holes opened.
“Taking my time and being patient and let everything flow,” Scott said of his turnaround. “Instead of just rushing it and thinking about it, just letting my game play.
“He’s the starter.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) November 3, 2019
The offense began to kick into gear. It rose up the national ranks. Ramsey and Penix have combined to be the Big Ten’s leading passer, and the group has scored over 30 points in six straight games.
“I feel like it just shows how dangerous our offense is once we’re clicking on all cylinders,” Scott said. “As long as long as we keep scoring and helping the defense out, keeping them off the field, I feel like that’s vital for the season.”
Suddenly IU finds itself on the cusp of more firsts.
The 7-2 start is IU’s best since 1993. And the nation is starting to pay attention.
IU has climbed closer to the Coaches and AP top 25 over the past two weeks. The last time IU was ranked in the AP top 25 was September 20, 1994.
At 7-2, riding one of the biggest waves of momentum in the program’s history, that is yet another drought that has a shot of ending this weekend.
And then IU turns its attention the 26, now 28, on Allen’s list — the years since it last won a bowl game. The Citrus Bowl had a representative in attendance as IU’s win total creeps higher, and bigger bowls become more of a realistic possibility.
“To be winning, and change history, and do it with a group of guys that love each other so much,” wide receiver Nick Westbrook said. “It’s a lot of fun.”