BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — For Indiana to pull off the huge upset of No. 5-ranked Ohio State on Saturday night, the Hoosiers are basically going to have to pitch a perfect game, or come pretty darn close.
There can be no turnovers, there has to be touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals, and special teams have to make some plays.
But how does that happen? How do the Hoosiers, who are currently 21.5-point underdogs even on their home field, find a way?
Sometimes the blueblood, in this case Ohio State, can be at risk if a team comes into a matchup on a roll and brimming with confidence.
That can't be said of the Hoosiers. Not even close.
The biggest problem the Hoosiers face right now stares right back at them in the mirror. Indiana is 2-4 on the season, with all four losses to four teams that ALL have been ranked No. 8 or better at some point this season.
Loss after loss after loss — especially in a season of high expectations— has been hard to swallow.
It's difficult to call the Hoosiers a confident bunch. And that's been the challenge for Indiana coach Tom Allen. Sure, you get on them for making mistakes and you put in a ton of effort to help them get better.
But injecting confidence at the same time? That's tough. Beating them down AND picking them up is a fine line, and a tough balancing act.
"I do think that is a fine line. I think you bring up a great point and that’s where the core structure of what you do isn’t going to change dramatically,'' Allen said Thursday when asked about his team's level of confidence. "Yeah, you have to adjust things, and there’s no doubt we’re in the process of doing that, to be able to create the outcomes that we want.
"But when you start to mess with too many things, that affects their confidence and their ability to execute just from lack of rep base or lack of just believing in whatever it is you’re doing. So, yeah, it is a fine line. It’s a judgment call you have to make as a coach to be able to know your team well enough and be able to work with them in those areas, whether it’s schematically, technically, with some technique, some fundamental things, you’re teaching or modifying in those areas.''
What we learned about Indiana last year was that they never felt like they were out of a game. Even if things weren't going their way — on either side of the ball — they kept grinding, kept battling, kept clawing.
They were down eight points very late to Penn State in opener, and came back and won. They were down 28 points early in the third quarter last year at Ohio State, and battled back to a seven-point deficit with the ball in their hands and a chance to tie in the fourth quarter.
It's hard to see that happening this year. Indiana's offense has been that bad. They've struggled with turnovers — 12 already in six games, including 10 interceptions — and have shot themselves in the foot repeatedly when they really needed a drive and a score.
It just hasn't, you know, happened.
Not yet anyway.
"At the end of the day, you have to execute at critical times. You’re right, both of those games last year we found ourselves behind, obviously very, very far behind in the beginning of the Ohio State game,'' Allen said. "The resiliency, the grit, the fight, and the toughness of this team, I think, has not left us. That’s who we are, that’s what this program is all about.
"We just have to be able to execute in those moments to have those opportunities. So, yeah, there’s no doubt we’re trying to make some adjustments and make some changes that we need to, to get the outcome we want, but we have to do it very judiciously.''
I pointed out last week prior to Indiana's fourth top-10 matchup that I thought the four most important players on Indiana's team this year were quarterback Michael Penix Jr,, linebacker Micah McFadden, wide receiver and special teams threat D.J, Matthews and cornerback Tiawan Mullen.
Only one of those four — Micah McFadden — was healthy enough to play against Michigan State. Penix missed the game with a shoulder injury, Mullen couldn't go with a foot injury and D.J. Matthews was lost for the season in the Western Kentucky game, tearing an ACL. (He had successful surgery on Thursday, by the way,)
McFadden had to tough it out, too, which he did. He played with a cast on his left hand after undergoing surgery to repair a broken thumb. That didn't slow him down one bit, but the Hoosiers clearly missed the other guys.
Ohio State has the best collection of receivers in America, so getting Mullen back would be huge. Fellow corner Reese Taylor is hobbling, too. He tried to play last week against Michigan State, but had to stop midway through. They've been getting treatment all week.
"Both have been working extremely hard (to get back on the field(,'' Allen said. "We've gotten them out there at different times, so we're just trying to see where they’re at. We don’t know for sure yet, but we're trying to get them ready for sure. We’d love to get those guys back. We definitely need them.''
They sure do,
Confidence, especially in college kids, is a fragile thing. Quarterback Jack Tuttle is a perfect example of that. He has spent three years in the Indiana program now, and he's got a big arm plus legs that can help him run for first downs. His teammates all love him, and have full faith in his abilities.
But when he got his first start Saturday, he had two bad interceptions and a lost fumble. It was the difference in the game, a 20-15 loss that should have been a win. He's made three starts at Indiana, scored 14 points in a win at Wisconsin, and lost the Outback Bowl to Ole Miss 26-20. That's 16.3 points per game, which won't win a lot of games — and certainly won't be enough against Ohio State, which has the No. 1-ranked offense in all the land.
Tuttle said all the right things when he met with the media on Tuesday, saying he learned from his mistakes and is moving forward.
But what happens on Saturday night? Does he have confidence to go out there and sling it around? He says yes, his teammates say yes, His coaches, too. But don't we have to see it to believe it? Don't we have to see the success?
I'd say yes to that, with this asterisk. Tuttle does feel like he's going to go out there and make plays against Ohio State. I believe that. But what about handling adversity when it comes? That's been the biggest Indiana flaw this year.
The defense has played well enough to win some of these games, probably Cincinnati and definitely Michigan State. The offense has struggled, really struggled.
There's no finger-pointing on this team, and that's a good thing. Those positive vibes coming from the defense? They need to rub off.
“We’re all in the together, we’re a team,'' Allen said. "The defense needs the offense, the offense needs the defense. It leans both ways, but right now it’s leaning in one direction.”
That fine line? The Hoosiers need to run right through it. That takes confidence.
Related stories on Indiana football
- RYDER ANDERSON INTERVIEW: Indiana defensive end Ryder Anderson joined the Mike & Micah podcast on Tuesday night, and he had plenty of great stories to tell, including being able to laugh now about roughing up quarterback Jack Tuttle in the Outback Bowl in January when he was still playing for Ole Miss. CLICK HERE
- MICHAEL PENIX INTERVIEW: Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. updated his injury status during the Mike & Micah podcast on Tuesday night, and defensive end Ryder Anderson was a special guest, and he had a ton of great stories to share with the audience. CLICK HERE
- LOTS, GATES OPEN EARLY: To better handle the sellout crowd expected for Saturday night's game between Ohio State and Indiana at Memorial stadium, the university is opening the campus parking lots and stadium gates earlier than usual. Here are all the details. CLICK HERE