EAST LANSING, Mich. — Indiana football never should have dragged Saturday’s game into overtime. It was lucky to come back from a 17-point halftime deficit, and luckier to survive Michigan State’s last-second field goal attempt in regulation.
But all that mattered was it did. Despite completing just one pass in regulation for seven yards and being outgained by 252, Indiana started overtime with a chance to win the game.
In the second overtime, after both teams traded blocked field goal attempts, it was sophomore quarterback Dexter Williams II finding junior tight end AJ Barner for 24 yards to put the Hoosiers to the 2-yard line. After senior running back Shaun Shivers scored a touchdown, it was the Williams-to-Barner connection again, putting Indiana up for good, 39-31.
“I knew I needed to come back locked in,” Williams said in a postgame press conference. “I knew they needed me to push the ball downfield at some point in this game. With the weather coming in we knew we’d have to throw the ball at some point, and when that moment came our offensive line did a perfect job protecting me, and we got the ball down the field.”
After all the celebrating, amid a steady downfall of snow and 20-degree weather, after Indiana broke up a last-chance fourth down attempt from Michigan State, and after the Indiana sideline sprinted onto the field, Barner found Williams and gave him a massive bear hug.
In his first career start, Williams was the hero that brought the Old Brass Spittoon back to Bloomington, all thanks to Barner’s aide. When Indiana needed a throw, it turned to Williams, who finished with a statline of 2-for-7 for 31 yards.
“What I told (Williams) was just, ‘I know we can throw the football and I know we can run the football,’” head coach Tom Allen said. “Obviously he lacks experience, but you don’t get it any other way than to do it. So we just stayed the course.”
Indiana was down 24-7 as it entered the halftime tunnel at Spartan Stadium on Saturday. Michigan State had dominated the game since Indiana scored on its first possession, and the Hoosiers looked like they were continuing their eight-game tailspin.
But in the locker room, belief didn’t waver. Allen, Shivers and Williams all said the same thing — the Hoosiers knew they could come back. And something changed.
“Obviously at halftime, that was not where we expected to be,” Allen said. “I expected this to be a dogfight. I just thought it would be. I just thought our guys were gonna play really really hard, and they did, but to be down at that point at halftime just gave us a chance to be even more resilient and do it on the road."
Both of Michigan State’s possessions to start the second half were three-and-outs. Indiana’s first possession lasted one play — a 79-yard touchdown rush from Shivers, who finished the day with 115 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m just so proud of Shaun for staying with us and just believing,” Allen said. “I know he hasn’t had the production that he’s wanted, but he saved his best for a really important game for us.”
With six minutes left in the third quarter, down 31-14, freshman Jaylin Lucas found a seam on a kick return and took the ball 88 yards to the house for his second kick return touchdown of the season.
“He made it way easy for us,” senior defensive lineman James Head Jr. said. “Shoutout Jay Lucas, that was a big return. That was one of the turning points in the game that shifted momentum in our favor.”
While they had several more chances and two overtime periods, the Spartans didn’t score the rest of the way.
In the first overtime, with a chance to take a 34-31 lead on a chip shot field goal, Head got a hand on the ball to keep the game in a deadlock and set Indiana up to win two drives later.
Indiana showed more resilience than it has throughout most of the season, fighting back to make it a one-score game despite being wildly outgained on offense. Between Head’s blocked kick, a tipped interception that landed in Jonathan Haynes’ arms and Shivers’ long run, Indiana had just enough heart to snap a seven-game losing streak.
It was far from perfect — Indiana’s secondary continued to struggle, allowing 298 passing yards while getting flagged three times for pass interference in the end zone.
Even while taking the weather into account, Williams didn’t strike confidence in his quarterbacking ability, as impressive as his running ability was — Williams ran for 113 yards and a touchdown before accounting for sacks. The Hoosiers’ front seven struggled to create negative plays and had only four tackles for loss, even though it forced several fourth-down stops on short-yardage plays.
But there were plenty of positives too, especially ones Indiana hasn’t seen much of all season. Shivers had his second-best rushing performance of the season, largely behind an improved offensive line. The Hoosiers set a season high in rushing yards with 257.
“The o-line got criticized a lot this year and I understand why,” Allen said. “But I think they should also be praised when they do a good job."
At this point in Indiana’s season and in Allen’s tenure, heading into the season finale against rival Purdue in Bloomington next week, pulling out a win like this is more than enough.
“There’s no question you lose your confidence when things don’t go your way,” Allen said. “So, when you start to get that back, it's a powerful thing.”