Even now, it’s tough to believe what happened.
One of the oddest, most exciting – and ultimately disappointing – finishes of the young college football season took place Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium, as Indiana appeared to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and ended up doing the exact opposite.
Right from the start, the Hoosier offense had its foot on the gas pedal. Cameron Coffman looked much more experienced than the first time starter he was; the Indiana play calling baffled the Ball State secondary; and Stephen Houston looked like the occasionally dominant back he was last season – breaking a couple of long runs and showing signs of breaking out of the slump that had marked the first two games of his season.
IU’s defense struggled to slow the high-powered Cardinal offense, but the Hoosier offense found another gear after falling behind 14-3. Indiana put up a trio of touchdowns, one from the legs of Houston and two on the arm of Coffman. IU played loose, free and easy – like a team with nothing to lose – and it was too much for Ball State. Even Kevin Wilson got in on the fun; at the end of the first half, BSU was caught with 12 men on the field during Indiana’s extra point attempt, which moved the ball to the Ball State 1-yard line. Wilson elected to eschew the surefire extra point in favor of a two-point conversion attempt – a move that looked brilliant when Stephen Houston rumbled into the end zone to give Indiana a 25-24 lead.
The Hoosiers took that lead to the locker room at halftime and had reason to be thrilled with their first half performance. A week after a 596 yard performance – IU’s best since Antwaan Randle El graced the roster – Indiana was on pace to exceed even that lofty output, as they produced an astounding 343 yards in the first half.
The third quarter was a different story.
IU’s wheels came off as soon as they set foot on the field after halftime. The squad that had been an offensive juggernaut less than half an hour before was unrecognizable as they put up only 32 yards in the quarter – less than 10% of their first half output. The Cardinals took advantage of the swoon in production and recaptured the lead by scoring 14 unanswered points.
“We did a really poor job at halftime and we’ll talk about that as coaches,” Wilson said after the game. “We’ll have; to take a look at that and try to do better.”
Such a poor effort in the 3rd quarter set the stage for what would be a madcap finish. Coffman sustained a hip pointer during the last drive of the third quarter and Nate Sudfeld, the true freshman, started the final quarter in his stead. He struggled on his opening drive, and got to the edge of field goal range on his next one before leading the offense on two quick scoring drives – capping one on a 70-yard bomb to Cody Latimer, another with a quick slant to Shane Wynn.
Those drives proved not to be enough. 46 seconds remained on the clock when Ball State retook possession, and Keith Wenning took advantage – picking up 34 yards on three throws, including an 18-yarder to a diving Willie Snead. The pass could have been ruled incomplete, but it stood up to review and Steve Schott booted a 42-yard field goal that provided the winning margin.
The loss was a tough one to sustain for a number of reasons, but more disheartening than anything else was the fact that IU was very successful on offense, yet still unable to come up with a victory. Indiana’s offense came up with 526 yards in three quarters of play, and scored 10, 15 and 14 points in the first, second and fourth quarters respectively. The Hoosiers did what they wanted on offense for most of the game, but didn’t do quite enough to win the game. Wilson wasn’t surprised by the offense show his team put on early, and was dumbfounded by the it went cold in the third quarter.
“I felt offensively we could get after them and have a big game and I’m disappointed in the third quarter because I don’t know where it went,” Wilson said. “I thought we would (get about 650 yards) the way we were playing, and I thought we would score 45 points easy, not putting them down.”
That quote from Wilson indicates immense confidence in his offense – one being run by 2nd and 3rd string quarterbacks – and, perhaps just as telling, belies the high standards he has for the unit.
“Stats are for losers,” he continued. “At the end of the day… stats are for assistant coaches.”
It was a game IU should have won. Wilson was right to expect elite performance from his offense in Saturday’s contest, and if the Hoosiers hadn’t essentially taken the third quarter off, they surely would have been able to win a shootout against a very good Ball State team. Some may blame the officiating or lack of crowd energy but Wilson’s closing statement gave great insight a mindset that transcends the finger pointing that – due to a lack of success – has been an unfortunate part of Indiana football.
“We’re not pointing fingers, just thumbs,” he said, referring to the coaching staff putting blame on themselves – a departure from last season, when Wilson showed he wasn’t afraid to call players out for poor performances. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Ball State but also a lot of respect for our young football team, and I don’t say young in a bad way. This is a good team and a lot better than most of you guys think. This is a good team that’s going to get a lot better every second of every day … we didn’t fold. Those days are long gone. (Our mindset) is changing and one of these days you’re going to see it too.”
Every team on IU’s schedule has shown weaknesses thus far this season, and even though a win over the Cardinals would have been great, Ball State is hardly the last winnable game on Indiana’s slate. A third straight loss to BSU – a MAC school – wasn’t how anyone on this team was hoping to enter B1G play, and for a program that’s made a habit of losing winnable games, it’s easy to write the Hoosiers off. This is still a young team though – one still learning tough lessons about different ways to lose games.
If they keep their current mindset and play the way they did for three quarters against the Cardinals, they may just find a couple ways to win them too.