Nothing told the story of Indiana football’s Saturday night better than the student section. With 90 minutes until kickoff in a delayed start against Idaho, the students dutifully filed into Memorial Stadium, living it up in a downpour of rain, soaked with high spirits in a game every Hoosier had circled as a win on the schedule.
Then the game began and Indiana started getting embarrassed. The Hoosiers failed to score in two drives early in the game. The Vandals looked like the more methodical team, never missing opportunities going the other way, and the fans started spilling out, surely thinking anywhere else was a better place to be.
By halftime only a quarter of the original section remained, still holding out hope, watching the ghost of Indiana try to pick up the pieces.
Slowly, the Hoosiers rewarded their fans, few of whom remained to see the end of the 35-22 victory.
"I got after them at halftime,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “I told the coaches to get after them at halftime. But it was also just, ‘Hey guys, just play football.’ That to me was a good sign for our guys. They did respond."
Start with an 80-yard drive to kick off the second half, highlighted by a 31-yard Shaun Shivers run and two acrobatic D.J. Matthews Jr. receptions and punctuated by Donaven McCulley running in a touchdown from the wildcat. Then 35 seconds later, a bad Idaho snap rolled into the endzone. The Vandals fell on the loose ball, resulting in a Hoosier safety.
From there, things began to fall into place. Indiana returned to looking like an FBS team facing an FCS team at home, rambling off a total of five consecutive touchdown drives in a second-half offensive outburst.
“There really wasn’t a major change, just kind of had to rally the troops, come out with a better mindset,” tight end AJ Barner said. “In the second half, no adjustments were really made, we just knew that we had to do our jobs.”
After only 110 yards of offense in the first half, the Hoosiers turned around to produce 326 in the second. Connor Bazelak’s 6-for-17 turned into 16-for-29 and 197 yards, despite not throwing a pass in the fourth quarter. Shivers rambled for 155 yards, including a late 46-yard touchdown burst that all but put the game away. Although they allowed two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, the Hoosiers maintained a steady lead until the end.
“(Momentum) is very important because once we get the defense misaligned, we definitely start being like, we got the momentum,” Shivers said. “We gotta keep hitting, keep hitting. We were kinda slow in the first half, and it was bad, but once we got locked in we talked to each other like, ‘Let’s pick it up.’”
Despite a thorough response after halftime, Indiana will need to be introspective moving forward. The first half performance won’t hold up, and tougher competition won’t let it hang around.
The only thing uglier than Indiana’s first half performance may have been the weather, but it was close. Charles Campbell missed two field goals. One was erased because of defensive holding, and the remainder of the drive ended when Shivers was stopped on the one-yard line on fourth down.
It was a monsoon of mistakes that didn't slow down for Indiana. An early second quarter drive ended on a fumble. Another, which started with promise after a 38-yard kickoff return and a 15-yard penalty on Idaho, ended when Bazelak’s overthrow of Cam Camper was picked off near the end zone.
“That’s not acceptable, in my mind, as far as the standard with which we have to play,” Allen said.
Even Indiana’s brightest spot in the first half didn’t count. Idaho pretended like it wasn’t going to snap the ball, then lobbed up a pass that Tiawan Mullen picked off and nearly returned for a touchdown, but a pass interference call negated the play.
Indiana kept hemorrhaging momentum, looking for anything to stop Idaho and spark its own offense. It found Aaron Casey one drive. The senior linebacker blasted through the offensive line to stuff a run before sacking Idaho’s quarterback on the next play. Another drive it found freshman Dasan McCullough, whose first career sack forced Idaho to settle for a field goal.
The only thing that seemingly could stop the Vandals was halftime.
Nobody needed to step up in a big way. None of the leaders gave a rallying speech. Instead, a few of them shared in a message that they needed to do more in the second half.
Bazelak never panicked. The offense and defense exchanged words on the sideline, each expressing it would pick up the other. The weather let up. Indiana came together.
“Too many mistakes, and that’s not good enough,” Allen said. “But I’m never gonna take for granted a win.”
Indiana takes on Western Kentucky in Bloomington next Saturday and will kick off at noon.