Stevie Scott and Matt Bedford lay on the field next to each other in front of the Michigan sideline. The snow driving into their backs and into the face of head coach Tom Allen who had rushed across the field to his two rising young stars. Scott walked back across the field on his power, limping, head pointed down toward the ground. Bedford swung his arms over two trainers, trying to limp off the field until he stopped. He couldn’t make it to the locker room.
“Guys get injured, other guys got to step up,” Allen said.
For so long this season, they have.
When IU lost Coy Cronk against UConn, Bedford stepped in seamlessly. When Charlie O’Connor filled in for Hunter Littlejohn, Scott had his best half of the season. When IU lost Whop Philyor, David Ellis and Ty Fryfogle kept IU’s offense afloat. And most importantly when IU lost Michael Penix, Peyton Ramsey got it to bowl eligibility.
That didn’t last forever. It never was going to.
IU opened with two scores in its first three drives against Michigan. The only other, a Ramsey interception where he appeared injured before coming back in on the ensuing series.
But when it lost Scott and Fryfogle in the first half, the wind in the sails of an IU offense cruising with the same gear it hadn’t shifted out of since the lost to Ohio State vanished. A 14-7 lead disappeared and soared to a 39-14 deficit.
IU masked its deteriorated depth in wins over Rutgers and Maryland. Michigan though, will, and did, capitalize against a roster it was better than to begin with even at full strength.
“This time of the year it gets exposed against this type of team,” Allen said.
When it lost Scott, Fryfogle and Bedford for various stretches, an offense that already lost Philyor, Penix and Cronk lacked the personnel to compete for the breakthrough win IU has searched decades for.
The majority of IU’s roster is youth juxtaposed with a starting lineup loaded with veterans. It was exactly that youth, the pieces of the record setting recruiting classes Allen has brought to Bloomington that sit at the center of this milestone reaching season and the reason why it has staying power.
For it’s those pieces that give IU whatever depth it has. For Tiawan Mullen to soar up the cornerback totem pole and become IU’s best at the position, for Bedford mitigating the loss of Cronk let alone IU’s offensive line playing better with him, for Ellis to give his team a chance in a suddenly expanded role at Beaver Stadium, for Scott to prove a breakout freshman year was no fluke and for Penix to give IU a chance in any game whenever he’s on the field.
But for as far as IU’s depth took it, all the way to a top 25 ranking and the best nine game start in 25 years, there is only so much of it. Allen knows that.
“We’re not where we need to be depth wise, we’re getting closer, absolutely,” Allen said. “But we’re not there yet. It’s about recruiting, player development and continuing to stay the course. It’s perseverance and passion toward what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
Allen’s two record setting recruiting classes have IU in a better position to withstand injuries than it has in years. But just two years of recruiting at a program altering level isn’t enough to have it ready to beat the elite of the Big Ten East just yet.
It’s getting closer, that’s been clear throughout this season. But it only has so many players that can match what Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State have to offer. It certainly doesn’t have that at the second and third string levels the way those teams can replace a star senior with a five-star freshman.
Each week with each milestone, IU says it isn’t satisfied. As another chance for a breakthrough win slips through its fingers, satisfaction is still far away. A top 25 ranking and bowl eligibility in October are steps in the right direction, but as Allen said coming out of the second bye week, and remains true still, IU hasn’t arrived just yet.