It looked early as though Tre Roberson was well on his way to a performance for the ages.
The sophomore quarterback was on target with his early passes and his first two rushes – both good for touchdowns – covered 50 and 39 yards respectively. Even with an early interception (a sophomore mistake pass forced into double coverage) Roberson had shown excellent poise and the electric ability as a scrambler that gave Hoosier fans reason to be optimistic about the team’s prospects for the year. That all changed on one ill-fated red zone run which concluded with Roberson on the ground – victim to a severe leg injury that could prove crippling to his team.
Tre Roberson first burst onto the scene last season when the Hoosiers traveled to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes. IU had just been dismantled in overwhelming fashion by Wisconsin, the eventual conference champions. The offense (excepting a long touchdown run from Stephen Houston) had been totally unproductive under the leadership of Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker, and Kevin Wilson knew a change had to be made.
He played things close to the vest throughout the week of practice, but when the Hoosiers took the field on offense for the first time, it was Roberson who led them out. He performed admirably, throwing for nearly 200 yards and a touchdown and adding 84 yards on the ground. More importantly, Indiana’s offense scored 24 points and topped 400 yards for the first time that season. Roberson kept the starting job for the rest of the season, and while the Hoosiers were unable to record a win, the offense continued to make strides and held its own in B1G competition.
Roberson continued to make a name for himself when spring practice rolled around. IU’s coaching staff had been busy on the recruiting trail, bringing in Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld – a junior college transfer and a highly touted true freshman, respectively – with the intention of giving Roberson some competition for the starting quarterback position.
“When you’re a 1-11 football team,” Kevin Wilson would later say, “There’s no such thing as a lock.”
Roberson refused to let the competition faze him though, and instead of taking a back seat to either of the newcomers, he jumped into Seth Littrell’s new offensive system with both feet and won the position outright over Coffman and Sudfeld. As if that weren’t enough, the coaching staff held up Roberson as an example of how to handle competition – tackling it head on and allowing it to push him to be a better player than he could have been without it.
In the opener against Indiana State and against UMass, fans saw the new and improved Tre Roberson. His numbers in little more than five quarters of play: a 65% completion rate; 361 yards through the air to go with 133 on the ground; and 5 total touchdowns to go with only one interception. Against Indiana State, he was consistent and his early action against the Minutemen was nothing short of electrifying. Now, a bad break – figuratively and literally – leaves him done for the year.
On third down, deep in Massachusetts territory, Roberson saw his primary receiver was covered and took off running to his left. He was muscled down short of the first down marker, and it looked as though the Hoosiers would need to decide between going for it on fourth and short and taking the short field goal. Everything changed as Roberson remained on the ground, writhing in pain with a broken leg.
Replays showed a UMass defender falling on Roberson’s leg while making the tackle, and the leg itself bending in a way that legs aren’t supposed to bend. The trainers – and eventually an ambulance – headed out to the field to tend to Roberson, taking him off on a stretcher and casting a pall over the rest of the game. Cameron Coffman continued in relief of Roberson and performed with admirable poise – throwing for 159 yards and a touchdown of his own – but showing none of the dynamic athleticism that made Roberson so unstoppable early in the game. The offense ran differently than it had with Tre Roberson manning the controls and that will continue to be the case.
Make no mistake: Indiana’s season isn’t over, but it is now drastically different. The Hoosiers’ construction (deep receiving corps, strong stable of backs, questionable defense) this season meant that the Roberson-led offense would play a big role in any success IU would have this year. His injury means that IU’s quartet of running backs (Coleman, Houston, Roberts and Isaiah Roundtree) will need to run that much harder; that Coffman, his successor, will need to find his own method of orchestrating the Hoosier attack; and that the defense steps its play up a notch – holding UMass to under 300 yards was a decent starting point.
Indiana may not now reach the potential they held with Roberson leading the attack, but the young team will get the opportunity to band together in the face of adversity and try to overcome what appears to be a critical blow to their season. Will it be an easy task? No, it won’t – the underdeveloped defense and inexperienced offensive line assure that. But much as Roberson allowed the fires of competition to drive him higher, this team must now walk through the fires of trial and come out stronger on the other side. For inspiration, they may want to look to Roberson himself, who didn’t let a compound fracture put a damper on his mindset.
“He was coming out on a stretcher,” Wilson said, “and he asked, ‘Did we pick up the first down?’”
He came up short on that run, but he’ll have the chance to rehab and if all goes to plan, he’ll have plenty of college football in front of him. If his teammates follow his example, he just may return to a team tougher and more determined than the one he left.