Image courtesy of IU Athletics
For those of you who missed my customary IU football column, duty called me to take a sabbatical from IU football – and IU football taught me a lesson.
At the beginning of this week, I was offered the opportunity to make a trip to South Bend and experience a game at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time and cover the team as a member of the media – it was an opportunity I enthusiastically accepted. There were certain perks to be sure (a bounty of chewy macadamia nut cookies chief among them; that’s another story) but frankly, I jumped at the opportunity for other reasons.
The Irish are in the midst of their most impressive stretch to open a season since Tyrone Willingham’s 2002 squad used smoke and mirrors to win their first 8 games of that season. A stingy defense and an offense with a primary focus on a pounding running game had given the Irish a #7 ranking in both national polls and an unblemished 5-0 record entering Saturday’s showdown with Stanford. The Cardinal looked like a doppelganger for the Irish – featuring the same physicality, and the same struggles with throwing the ball. It appeared to be a dead-even matchup, and a far more desirable viewing option than the Indiana-Ohio State game that would occur later that evening.
I chose to make the drive to South Bend, and was in the building for one of the coolest moments of a young college football season – Notre Dame’s defense stonewalling Stanford to move to 6-0 and catapult them to a top-5 BCS ranking. Even now though, I’m not so sure I made the right decision.
Whenever Indiana hosts Ohio State, both the Hoosier and Buckeye fan bases crack the same joke: “Looks like it’s picture day.” Buckeye fans visiting Indiana for football games have traditionally treated Memorial Stadium as The Horseshoe West. They descend on Bloomington in droves and guarantee at least one sold-out IU football game – and one perfect opportunity to photograph what appears at a distance to be Memorial Stadium filled to capacity with cheering Hoosier football fans. Actual Hoosier fans seldom find the game very enjoyable.
For the past two seasons, I’ve followed this IU football team around the country and written on their exploits. I haven’t made every trip (wisely omitting last year’s disappointing treks to North Texas and Wisconsin), but I’ve attended many more games than I’ve missed with not a single B1G win to show for those efforts. To go a step further, the four-year seniors who arrived on this campus in 2009 have not yet experienced a conference win in Memorial Stadium, despite several close calls. Even for Indiana football, the recent stretch of futility – including last year’s 1-11 season – has been tough to deal with.
But while many students cope with such ineffectuality by tailgating hard enough to forget they aren’t actually members of the football team, members of student media don’t have that option.
Rationalizing the journey to South Bend was easy. After watching an IU football team try and fail for the better part of two years to figure out how to come up with a gritty, gutty (read: ugly) win, I figured there would be a great chance to see just that in a contest between Stanford and Notre Dame – two teams that have won ugly games all season long. Besides, I’d never been to Notre Dame stadium before. Not being subjected to a game that featured Indiana as a 17.5-point underdog in its own building was a bonus. Little did I know, the Hoosiers would give the #8 Buckeyes the sternest test they’d seen all season.
Indiana had shown some signs of life over the past couple of weeks in playing arguably the toughest two non-Ohio State teams in the conference – Northwestern and Michigan State. The offense looked fairly capable in both games, recording 29 and 27 points respectively but it also stalled for entire halves of play. While the defense did string together a few stops in both contests, it also allowed the Wildcats to set a school record for yards gained in a single game and made Michigan State look a lot better than the team that barely snuck by Eastern Michigan a couple of weeks earlier. Neither team looked bad, but nor did they appear as impressive as OSU.
The Buckeyes came into Saturday’s game fresh off a 63-38 waxing of then-#20 Nebraska. Braxton Miller darted through the Cornhusker defense like a Heisman frontrunner and the OSU looked every bit like the best team in the conference. The spread option offense the Buckeyes run appeared even more potent than the one Northwestern ran to such great effect and while their defense didn’t resemble the traditionally stout Ohio State unit, it still looked like a group that could make enough stops to help the Buckeyes easily cover the three-score spread.
The IU defense was gashed just as badly as many expected – OSU’s offense scored 45 points (one touchdown came from a blocked IU punt that their special teams unit recovered in the end zone) and rolled up 578 yards. Miller threw for a pair of touchdowns and was one yard shy of giving the Buckeyes two 150-yard rushers (Carlos Hyde was the other) for the game. Devin Smith had only two catches, but both went for scores and he still finished with more than 100 receiving yards. Along the way though, a funny thing happened: IU’s offense just kept scoring and the team as a whole refused to quit.
The Hoosiers led 14-10 in the second quarter before Ohio State recovered the blocked punt to take a 17-14 lead that they would not relinquish, but they didn’t make it easy on the Buckeyes, mounting a furious forth quarter comeback that finished an onside kick short of one of the most improbable victories in program history. IU scored a staggering 35 points in the second half, finishing with 49 – the highest total Indiana has recorded in 86 games against OSU and the most points allowed by a Buckeye defense since 1994. The Hoosiers also showed their newfound attention to detail yet again, committing only four penalties – to Ohio State’s 10 – for the second straight week.
Despite that, all Kevin Wilson talked about afterward was how the team was “still four points not enough” and lamented his team beating themselves once again. Wilson, who came in with the reputation as an offensive guru, had just seen his team’s greatest offensive performance in his time at IU and didn’t seem one bit interested in taking a moment to bask in the fact that his team had delivered the single greatest performance in the history of the Indiana-Ohio State series.
Back in South Bend, Stanford’s David Shaw entered the press room less than 15 minutes after his team had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Irish. He was curt with the media – answering every question he was asked in 20 seconds or less and in a manner that could be described as something less than courteous.
“I’m not here to talk about Notre Dame,” he said when asked to describe what the Irish did to stop his team when given four plays inside the four-yard line. “Thank you.”
When it became clear that he wasn’t answering questions, the room grew silent and Shaw made a series of unprompted statements. He said that Stepfon Taylor, the Stanford running back, insisted to him that he had crossed the goal line; he stated that his team had given up a crucial sack on third down because they had heard a whistle – a statement that every Notre Dame defensive player denied. He came across as a man who believed his team had done everything they could have to earn a win, only to have it stolen from them.
He didn’t mention Josh Nunes’ two interceptions that came on poor reads and worse throws and when asked about a few key penalties that extended Notre Dame scoring drives, he declined ownership of them.
“No comment,” he responded derisively.
Stanford had a very realistic chance to win the game – they entered the weekend as the #17 team in the country, having beaten Notre Dame three consecutive times and they actually led until very late in the game. It was Kevin Wilson though, not David Shaw, who seemed to hold greater expectations for his team. Wilson didn’t make excuses for his guys, he pointed out things they could have done better to put them in a position to beat a team that no one thought they had any business beating.
That’s what a real coach looks like. That’s what a leader looks like. Kevin Wilson has taken his fair share – maybe more than his fair share – of potshots from the press, but after a tough season and a half he finally has his team showing progress and still isn’t satisfied with anything short of success.
I took a week off from IU football, experienced an outstanding atmosphere in one of the great stadiums in college football, but I missed more than just another run-of-the-mill Hoosier loss.
I missed IU come within a few points of beating Ohio State for the first time since 1988. I missed the first game under Kevin Wilson where Hoosier fans can feel truly optimistic about the direction of the program. I may have missed a program’s turning point.
I believed Indiana had no shot to win that game and I won’t make that mistake again.
Neither should you.