BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The stories are separated by thousands of miles, from one coast to another, with a dash of heartland tossed in to put a bow on it all. But the facts, well, they are practically identical.
Two stories intertwined as one.
D.J. Matthews grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and football greatness was thrust upon him at a young age. He was dynamic and electric, so fast and so flamboyant. He was going to be a star, and venturing off to Florida State and its history of three national titles and top-four finishes was a given.
He'd be the next great star in an iconic program full of them.
Stephen Carr grew up near Los Angeles, and he was pure vision running with a football tucked under his arm. He was a five-star running back in high school, and when you're that guy in LA, you're going to USC, just like Heisman Trophy winners Marcus Allen and O.J, Simpson and Reggie Bush did.
It's RBU ... and that's you. Those 11 national titles have great pull, too. You don't get more iconic than USC when you grow up on the West Coast
And four years later, these stories remain practically identical. Matthews and Carr each had one year of college football left, but those legendary programs didn't hold the pull they once did. Both decided to look around for greener pastures.
Both settled on Indiana University, the polar opposite through the years of places like USC and Florida State. There are no national titles, and not even a Big Ten championship since 1967. There are more losses than any major college program in history.
But things are different now in Tom Allen's football program, and there is promise and hope. Matthews and Carr saw that in the recruiting process, saw what the program was all about, and saw how everyone -- coaches, players, staff members -- was completely bought in to LEO.
Second chances can be a wonderful thing.
Florida State and USC? That's all in the rear-view mirror. And those greener pastures? Right here in Bloomington.
Making an immediate impact
In the first week of fall camp, it was obvious that Carr was the best running back on Indiana's roster. He has good speed and can make people miss at the second level, but he's also strong and tough, and he's very good at adding a yard or two on every run.
Carr started the opener at Iowa, and had 57 yards on 19 carries. But on Saturday night against Idaho, he had 118 yards on 22 carries -- a 5.4-yard average -- and he scored his first Indiana touchdown. It was his first 100-yard game since his freshman year at USC in 2017.
He's so happy to be here, and it shows. He pops into the media room after the game with a huge smile on his face, greeting people and asking how they're doing on his way in.
Getting a win, and feeling the love from Indiana's student section -- which really showed out, by the way -- made for a fun night. Indiana ran the ball for 179 yards, which was a good thing.
"It was a big difference, a big difference, from last week,'' Carr said. "It all comes back to practice. We all got on our high horse and we all tuned in and had a great attention to detail this week in practice. It showed, and it can only improve from here. "
Carr had nine carries on Indiana's impressive 18-play scoring drive to start the game, It got him in a nice rhythm. And for an offense that wants balance, Carr delivered.
"It got me in a good rhythm, but I think the offensive line got into a really good rhythm, too. I think it helped perk the team up. It's just a blessing.
"I love seeing more spread receivers, we have a great receiving core, so if the run game can open up the passing game, that's amazing. We always want for that. It also falls right back to the run game. If the passing game opens back up, the run game will excel also. You can't ask for more. You want to see your receivers eating, that means your quarterback is playing good. You want to see the run game working, which means the offensive line is putting the dots together, putting all the pieces together, which allows for everyone to have a good, successful game. We just have to stay attention to details."
Putting the 'special' in special teams
Indiana preaches special teams work in practice every day, and it's a priority, not an afterthought. And that starts at the top with Allen.
"The players know how important special teams are to us and we work on them so much,'' Allen said. "But the challenge was, hey, let's make those game-changing plays. We've always been really solid the last few years, and now I said it's time to help us go win the game. We have three DNAs for each area and for special teams, providing the winning edge is No. 1; for special teams be at your best when it counts the most, and make game-changing plays. They lived those three out tonight and I thought it was awesome."
Matthews has always loved playing special teams, and he set records at Florida State as a punt returner. Reese Taylor was Indiana's returning punt returner, but Matthews was going to need some looks, too, considering the resume.
That happened Saturday night, when he fielded a deep punt over his shoulder, then changed direction about five different times on his way to an 81-punt return for a touchdown.
He returned one for 76 yards at Florida State, but on that one, he straight-lined it to the end zone. This one, based on the replay, required about 13 yards of running to make it through the Idaho coverage and into the end zone.
"I was definitely feeling it at the end. My legs were getting tired on me,'' Matthews said. "But guys stayed on their blocks a long time for me.
"We've been emphasizing it a lot this week, special teams, just coming out making plays, changing the game. You know winning the hit in yardage. And you know, when it was my time, it was my time to make a play. Just thinking about catching the ball, you know, fielding it. If anything, getting it back to my teammates once I seen my team come out and execute it, they set up a nice wall for me and I was able to get around, make a few guys miss and score a touchdown.''
The return electrified the crowd, and it was the second special teams touchdown of the night, the first time that's happened at Indiana since 1969. For Matthews, who opted out of the 2020 season at FSU before transferring, hearing the roar of a crowd again was electric.
"It was nice having fans back. It was just nice coming out playing in front of Indiana for my first time,'' Matthews said. "The crowd was amazing, the students came out. They showed support. This was my first home game, so I've never seen the stadium packed out before, so it was definitely nice."
Matthews plays a big role in Indiana's passing attack, too, earning the starting job in the slot after a great spring and fall camp. His Indiana career started inauspiciously at Iowa, where he slipped on a cut on his first pass play, and Michael Penix's throw bounced off his hands and into the air. It was picked off and returned for an Iowa touchdown.
Penix said last Tuesday that Matthews apologized on the sideline, but that wasn't necessary.
"That happens in football, slipping like that,'' Penix said. "I told him not to let it bother him and just keep making plays. I have total faith in him, and I'm always going to be looking for him. He's going to make a lot of plays for us this year.'
Matthews had four catches on Saturday against Idaho, and Indiana's passing game looked better, though there's still lots of work to be done. He's getting a good feel playing with Penix, who missed all of the spring while recovering from ACL surgery
"I feel like it's better,'' Matthews said. "We came back this week more prepared. We were ready to get in the lab, work hard, put everything behind us from what happened in Week 1.
"Things happen, and it's about how we going to respond to adversity. We all just put our heads down and went hard this week in practice. Just a little attention to details and routes, assignments, being at the right depth. You know, just being in the right spots just to make him more comfortable in the pocket. The quarterback, he's got a lot of things going on, a lot of reads he's got to make, so I have to be at my best, the receivers have to be at their best so we can help him out."
For Matthews, sometimes a second chance is really a last chance. He might not be an everyday NFL receiver, but he's got mad special teams skills and he showed that off once again on Saturday.
It means a lot for him to be here, and be part of this program right now. Timing is everything in life, and this is perfect timing for Matthews. He even said so, starting his press conference by thanking everyone at Indiana for embracing him so well.
"I want to start off by saying I'm blessed,'' a contrite Matthews said. "I appreciate Coach Allen and (special teams) coach (Kasey) Teegardin and I appreciate everybody at Indiana University for allowing me to come here and continue to play football,'' Matthews said. "I appreciate y'all. LEO''
Yes, greener pastures, indeed.
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