Stevie Scott buried through the IU offensive line for a first down with just over six minutes left in the third quarter Saturday afternoon.
By converting that fourth down from the Michigan 32 yard line, Scott gave IU a new set of downs deep in Michigan territory down 10 points.
But it was too good to be true. Another flag, this time a holding call on freshman tackle Matthew Bedford negated the run, forcing IU to send out Haydon Whitehead and the punt team to give the ball back to Michigan. It took IU out of field goal range let alone squashed IU’s first offensive success since the first seconds of the second quarter.
IU’s execution in big moments against ranked opponents is like a scene in a movie that plays in the heads of IU fans on constant repeat.
It comes back in the same moments every year and dampers in any ounce of momentum that the IU football program is building.
Against Ohio State, it lasted the entire game. Michigan State and Penn State saw IU make enough plays to stay in the entirety of the game before it inevitably fell short in the closing moments.
On Saturday against Michigan it was a series of events that began with Donovan Peoples-Jones making an outstanding over the shoulder catch for a touchdown and ended with Nico Collins taking a Shea Patterson pass and dashing 76 yards to the endzone.
That score from Collins midway through the third quarter put Michigan up three scores and put the first nail in IU’s coffin.
“Michigan had a good scheme and we didn’t execute,” IU tight end Peyton Hendershot said. “It’s as simple as that. Credit to them for coming prepared, but we’ve got to execute better.
IU head coach Tom Allen talked all week about how important it was for the group of fifth-year seniors to put a bow on their successful IU careers with a win over a ranked opponent.
It had four chances this season and nine the two seasons prior. This group of fifth-year seniors led by Donavan Hale, Nick Westbrook and Hunter Littlejohn has just one ranked win to its name; a 24-21 win over a Michigan State team in 2016 that finished 3-9.
At the start of the ballgame, it seemed like IU might’ve finally exercised its demons and flipped the script. Peyton Ramsey led IU right down the field before Scott leaped over the pile for the first score of the game.
Two drives later, Scott helped push Ramsey into the endzone to retake the lead. IU wouldn’t score again after the 14:09 mark of the second quarter.
After awhile, the mistakes started to pile up. It was the blown coverage by, well, insert-name-here, member of the IU secondary.
Then it was the IU offensive line missing a block, allowing Ramsey to get crushed as he scrambled out of the pocket.
As afternoon turned to night and rain turned to snow on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, it became evident that IU isn’t quite built for this moment yet.
Allen’s job on the recruiting trail is to be applauded. He’s done an amazing job of putting IU in the position to even think about beating the Big Ten’s best.
But after awhile, quality teams will find and pick apart the liabilities in the opposition. For IU Saturday, it was the secondary headlined by Raheem Layne and Juwan Burgess that attempted to keep up with NFL-caliber receivers like Peoples-Jones and Collins.
Even Tiawan Mullen, who’s been outstanding all season long, struggled to guard the talented Peoples-Jones.
“One of our concerns was our secondary against their receivers,” Allen said. “We play a fair amount of man-to-man and they’re going to win some of those one-on-one matchups. But we’ve got to win some too and we didn’t win enough of those. There’s technique involved and size and speed are variables but I was not pleased with the level of football.”
IU can’t afford plays where it shoots itself in the foot.
It can’t withstand the numerous injuries. Already without leading receiver Whop Philyor, starting left-tackle Coy Cronk and starting quarterback Michael Penix, IU would add tackle Matthew Bedford, Scott and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle to the list before the game ended.
Saturday afternoon turned into another chapter in the “close, but not close enough” book written by IU football. It stayed with Michigan for a half before injuries and mistakes piled up.
This season which saw IU clinch bowl eligibility the last week of October and a winning season the first week of November, is the giant first step IU need to take in Allen’s rebuild of the program.
But its not quite ready to take the next step: beating the conference’s elite.
IU now turns its attention to Purdue and the Old Oaken Bucket game next weekend in West Lafayette. A win over a Purdue team, that can’t go bowling this season, would give Allen his first victory over the in-state rival and would give IU at least eight wins this year.
“When I talk to our players, I was very blunt,” Allen said. “It’s not what you wanted but it’s about what you want. How do you respond? The reality is we can’t do anything to change what happened so you’ve got to focus on the task at hand. We’ve got the chance to get an eighth win and win the bucket back. Those are two huge things we’ll put a premium on and this football team will be ready.”
Wins over injury-plagued teams like Purdue are the victories that Allen has to prove he’s really turned the corner. He did it against Maryland and Northwestern. Even Nebraska on the road.
A win over Purdue would do the same. It stumbles into West Lafayette losers of two straight and more injured than it has been all season.
But a win next week would prove that IU football is still on the right track.