Indiana's Coaches Already Understand Meaning of Bucket Game

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — In the college football big picture, the Indiana-Purdue rivalry rarely garners much national attention. It's not Alabama-Auburn or Michigan-Ohio State or  or even Florida-Florida State in its best years.

It's no different this year, really. Indiana is having its best season in a dozen years, and is 7-4. Purdue is just 4-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time in Jeff Brohm's three years. Still, there is no national buzz over the Old Oaken Bucket. There's really not much at stake.

But from Gary to Madison, and Fort Wayne to Evansville, it matters. It's bragging rights throughout the state, bragging rights at the office water cooler and bragging rights, in many families, among husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and many various combinations.

So, of course it matters. Noon Saturday can't get here soon enough.

Where it matters the most, of course, is in the football offices in West Lafayette and Bloomington, because that's where the outcome of Saturday's game at Purdue will be determined, to a large extent. 

It matters, and inside our state borders, it matters a lot. It's a rivalry to be sure, and it's  great rivalry because it's been very even lately. Because either side can win, It's always worth looking forward to.

Even though Purdue has won the last two, you can't get any more even than this Old Oaken Bucket rivalry.

Such as:

  • In the past four years, the series is tied 2-2.
  • In the past eight years, the series is tied 4-4.
  • In the past 10 years, the series is tied 5-5.
  • In the past 12 years, the series is tied 6-6.
  • In the past 32 years, Purdue leads the series, but only by 18-14.

So don't be fooled that Indiana coach Tom Allen is only coaching his third Bucket game as a head coach. And don't be concerned that Indiana's two new coordinators — Kalen DeBoer and Kane Wommack — don't get it, because they do.

Very much so.

"I was raised in this state, and I understand it. It's personal,'' said Allen, a New Castle native who also coached high school football in Indianapolis for several years. "I've watched many of them over the years. I know how important it is to our university, our fan base, our former players, everybody who is part of IU."

Allen was part of Indiana's 2016 win over Purdue during his one year as Kevin Wilson's defensive coordinator, so he knows what it's like to cradle that special bucket. But he also knows what's it like to lose it, as he has during his first two years as Indiana's head coach. Both times, the loss to Purdue cost Indiana, 5-6 at the time, a bowl bid.

He talks all season long about that week's game being the most important game of the year because it's the next one. Well, this is the next one, and because it's always the last one in the regular season, its result tends to linger longer.

Much longer.

"It's absolutely something that has really bothered me these last two years,'' Allen said. "Obviously, there were a lot of things that happened when we lost that game, lost the opportunity to go to a bowl game the last two years. It was a very, very difficult offseason to have to sit there and kind of have that over your head, in your heart. 

"But that's just being real. That's the truth. It's been something that we obviously have been setting aside for when the time is right, but now is that time. Our entire focus is on the Purdue Boilermakers.''

It's no different for Indiana's coordinators either, because they got how important this game is to Indiana from the second they walked in the front door at Memorial Stadium.

“I remember walking through the halls at the end of January and seeing signs on the wall and figuring that it was the last game of the season, and so those signs were just still in place,” first-year offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. “Well, they’re still up. Certainly, it didn’t take long to understand how important this game is for us, and I'm sure for Purdue as well.

"Rivalries are fun, and they're what college football is all about. But you've just got to do what you do.''

DeBoer has turned around Indiana's offense in his first few months, and is a semifinalist for the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. Indiana's passing game, the No. 1-ranked group in the Big Ten, has been a big reason why the Hoosiers have won seven games for the first time since 2007, and have won four straight conference games and been nationally ranked for the first time in 25-plus years.

He also knows most of that won't matter if Indiana doesn't beat Purdue on Saturday. The game means that much. Indiana's offense, which struggled for three quarters against 9-2 Michigan, is over that and on to Purdue, who's defense ranks 12th in the Big Ten, ahead of only Maryland and Rutgers.

"I talked to the guys (Monday) and told them, let's give some respect to who we were playing. Not a lot of other teams have moved it against them, either,'' DeBoer said. "We understand that we are the same offense, so let's just regroup and do what we do. I looked them in the eyes and told them, (the Purdue game) is just getting right back to what we've been doing all year long.''

Defensive coordinator Kane Wommack got his first taste of the Old Oaken Bucket rivalry a year ago as the linebackers coach, and now there's added emphasis, of course, in his new role as the defensive coordinator.

"This is my second Bucket game, and last year really left a bad taste in my mouth,'' Wommack said. "I think our guys still have a hunger to finish this season well, whereas a year ago, we were kind of limping to the finish line. I think we're in a good position right now, and we're looking forward to this challenge. 

"On a personal level, I always enjoy the challenge of a good coordinator, and we certainly get that with Jeff Brohm and his staff. Our guys are hungry to win this one, and I certainly am, too.''

Indiana is favored by a touchdown in this game, but in rivalry games, that often doesn't matter. It's all about finishing.

And then about the bragging.

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