BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It takes a lot to move up in the pecking order in college football. It doesn't happen overnight, and it certainly doesn't happen on just one Saturday. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes consistency.
Tom Allen knows that all too well at Indiana. He had a vision for what this program could be when he was hired five years ago, and despite Indiana's history of losing through the years — and losing a lot — he felt like he could create a winner. Two years of progress has been nice, and big things are expected in 2021.
How big? Well, Indiana was ranked in the Associated Press preseason poll this year, ranked No. 17 and joining the preseason party for the first time since 1969. There was talk of contending for a Big Ten title — both inside the locker room and out — and spending an entire season in the national spotlight once again.
But this season started with a thud, with Indiana losing 34-6 at Iowa two weeks ago in a showdown of top-20 teams. (Iowa was ranked No. 18 in the preseason poll, but are No. 5 now just two weeks in.)
And now here comes Cincinnati, a program much like Indiana that's trying to become a fixture on the national stage. They are 2-0 this season, ranking No. 8 in the country, and they've won 34 of their past 40 games under Luke Fickell. The two rising powers clash at sold-out Memorial Stadium on Saturday in a nationally televised showdown.
So, yes, it's big. Real big.
And after stubbing its toe in the opener, this one is very important for an Indiana team that desperately needs a big-time win. Calling it a 'must-win' might be too much, but a sense of urgency certainly exists because it's a golden opportunity to rejoin the national conversation
"I think a sense of urgency is probably a good way to put it,'' Allen said. "I think there's no question that's what this situation creates. Like you mentioned, we had an opportunity in Week 1, and we're going to have many opportunities — as you see in the polls — to be able to be able to play against top teams in the country. Our schedule is full of them, and this is the next one.
"As we told our team, it's the biggest game of the season because it's the next one. Our guys understand that. But you asked what opportunity presents itself, and the chance to be able to just go out there and prove yourself every week, that's really what it comes down to. It's about earning it every single week. And when you play such a schedule like we do, then you are blessed with the opportunities to be able to play elite teams consistently. That's what this one presents, so we definitely want to make sure we're fully ready for it.''
Under Allen, Indiana won eight games in 2019, and it's the first time an Indiana football team had done that since 1993 under Bill Mallory. But the naysayers — and there are many of them — were quick to point out that all eight wins came against teams that finished with losing records.
None of them — Ball State, Eastern Illinois, Connecticut, Rutgers, Maryland, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue — were ranked and finished the season with a combined record of just 25-71. Nebraska was 5-7, no one else won more than four.
Indiana played four games against ranked teams that year — No. 6 Ohio State, No. 9 Penn State, No. 13 Michigan and No. 25 Michigan State — and lost them all.
That narrative changed during 2020, of course, when Indiana started beating ranked teams in went 6-1 in the COVID-shortened regular season, beating No. 8 Penn State, No. 23 Michigan and No. 16 Wisconsin. Those people who said Allen couldn't beat good teams had to eat a little crow, though many — the lower IQ guys — dismissed the wins because of COVID and down years at those three perennial powers.
But it's clear that Indiana is knocking on the door on that national stage on a regular basis, and that's why the Hoosiers have to take advantage of opportunities like this.
Attention to detail has been the phrase that pays the past week or so, and it needs to show up on Saturday against a Cincinnati team that is legitimately good and loaded with veteran players, including NFL-ready quarterback Desmond Ridder, a four-year starter.
Allen said there have been three points of emphasis in leading up this this big matchup. That attention to detail is first and foremost, as is continued dependence on relying on fundamentals and making sure that every group is at the top of their games with communication.
"It's just continued focus on the relentless attention to detail. I think that that has to be how you perform in those pressure moments,'' Allen said. "We had a chance to play a really, really good football team in Week 1 and that exposed certain things. So now, to be able to have another opportunity to play another top 10 team, the execution of our offense, execution of our defense, execution of our special teams at an elite level in those moments against that type of competition are very important. That's the focus. And that's the way I want our guys to prepare and how we ultimately are going to play. So that's step number one for me.''
Fundamentals always matter, Allen said. And that never changes.
"Even though as the games get bigger throughout the season, the emphasis on fundamentals doesn't change,'' he said. "To be able to fundamentally position yourself with footwork and hand placement and how we're going to tackle and the angles we're going to take and where our eyes are going to be, it always has to be a priority.
"We're continuing to teach those things because those are fundamental things that don't go away and they are part of what you do. So much a part of defense is eye discipline and making sure we made a huge emphasis on that. That's going to be another huge point this week.''
Communication is critical too, because it makes the difference between executing at a high level and making game-changing mistakes.
"Those are just things to me that just show up. They come out in big games when you have crowds and noise and you have to have the ability to make sure you're on the same page,'' Allen said. "It's just one miscommunication here or there can be the difference in the game. That's why those things in a game like this where every play is going to have so much on the line, you have to be able to be at your best in those moments and have those executions that you're looking for.
"So, to me, that's what you emphasize. And it's the process that you go through to continue to get better at that. And every week you want to see those mistakes continue to diminish each and every week.''
Indiana has a veteran team with dozens of players who have played in a lot of big games through the years. What they've learned — especially during the past two years — is that they have to be at their best at the most important moments.
It's critical. And it needs to happen on Saturday against the Bearcats, who are 3.5- point favorites.
"You have t to be able to do the fundamental things the right way at critical moments of the game and being able to execute offense, defense, special teams in those moments when it counts the most and when the game is on the line and when there's a lot to play for,'' Allen said. "But that's where you want guys to get to, where that just becomes the norm.
"Look, this is how we play. This is the standard. The opponent doesn't drive that. The clock doesn't drive that. The circumstances don't drive that. You drive that and you control that, with your focus and your attention to detail.
"That's what we're trying to get to as a program, as a team. And that, to me, is where you want to be able to have that steady performance all the time, and that's who we are when we play. That's what we talk about, our DNA on each side of the football, offense, defense, special teams. That's who we are. That's what we're known for. And when you see us play, that's what you think of and that's what we want. We talk about those things. They're plastered in every single room. We talk about them every single day. And we want that consistent performance from our guys. So that's the expectation for this program is to be able to perform in those moments at a high level.''
That chance comes again on Saturday against Cincinnati. Sense of urgency? Absolutely. Indiana is a good football team that laid an egg in the opener. This is the next chance, and it's one they have to grasp.
Playing at home in front of a sell-out crowd is going to help. A lot. But it's still on the Hoosiers — and all three phases — that need to rise to the occasion.
Big game. Big moments. Big opportunity.
It's all there — right there — for the taking.
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