BLOOMINGTON – The last time Indiana faced a Top 10-ranked team, there was optimism but uncertainty.
IU was a young bunch in September coming off two straight wins over Ball State and Eastern Illinois, eager to show this season was going to be different. But following a 51-10 loss to then No. 6 Ohio State at Memorial Stadium which included a blocked punt allowed for a safety and six sacks of backup quarterback Peyton Ramsey, fans were left wondering if these were the same old Hoosiers.
Nothing has been the same since. IU has won five of its last six, with the lone loss coming in the closing seconds at Michigan State. The No. 24 Hoosiers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten), ranked for the first time since 1994, will take a four-game win streak into a matchup Saturday at No. 9 Penn State (noon, ABC), even more confident and less uncertain.
“We’re happy, but we’re not really satisfied,” IU senior receiver Donovan Hale said. “We obviously came here to change the program around, but we’re not done. We want to be top five in the country, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get to that point.”
Hale said the Ohio State loss brought the Hoosiers closer as a team.
“They came in and beat us pretty bad,” Hale said. “It’s no secret, but at the end of the day, it brought us closer, and it made us more hungry than we were before, after getting beat like that.”
At the time of the Ohio State loss, Indiana football coach Tom Allen expected the leadership of the team to carry it through adversity. In a sense, Allen was prophetic. There have also been subtle changes over the last two months. Younger players, like freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen and freshman left tackle Matthew Bedford became starters. After allowing six sacks in the Ohio State loss, the Hoosiers have allowed just seven sacks since.
“It was tough reality that we weren’t where we wanted to be,” Allen said of the Ohio State loss. “But what do you do? You feel sorry for yourself, or you go back to work. We chose to go back to work and get better. So now we have a chance to line up again against a team of that same caliber. We’ll see where we are.”
Indiana sophomore running back Stevie Scott III said what was learned following the Ohio State loss was the importance of playing precise football and staying together. Those are two lessons Scott said the Hoosiers will take into their matchup at Penn State.
“We just can’t have any mistakes going against like big teams, especially top-10 teams,” Scott said. “We can’t really have any mistakes, and we have to win the turnover battle and just be really efficient and move the ball and have that chemistry going into the game. We can’t be off on different pages, really. We have to be all on the same page. That’s the only way you can win, especially against a big team like Penn State.”
IU’s defense also has done a better job of forcing mistakes since September. At the time of the Ohio State game, the Hoosiers had forced just two turnovers through three games, which Allen said was not up to IU’s standard. IU has forced nine turnovers in the six games since, including three in its last game against Northwestern.
“It’s been growing,” Allen said. “As we’ve said, it happens in clumps and we’re plus-one (in turnover margin) overall which is a very important part of our team. That’s how you win football games is protect it on offense and take it away on defense.”
Penn State is coming off a 31-26 loss at Minnesota in which quarterback Sean Clifford threw three interceptions. But the Nittany Lions have done a solid job protecting the ball throughout the season, with just 10 turnovers in nine games.
“They’ve really been good protecting the football,” Allen said. “I know they had some issues last week, but that was uncharacteristic of them to do that. So that’s been a big part of their success.”
How IU handles facing Penn State and a sellout crowd of 100,000 at Beaver Stadium will serve as a measuring stick for how far the program has progressed since September. After the Penn State game, IU will close the season at home against No. 14 Michigan and at rival Purdue. IU has already achieved part of its goal in reaching a bowl game, but more wins between now and the end of the season increase the chances of playing in a higher profile New Year’s Day bowl.
“There’s no question we have a really important three-game stretch here that’s going to define our season and how this group is remembered,” Allen said.