BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Oftentimes in college football, it's as much about who you play as it is how you play. Your record is your record, and that's who you are, but it never tells the whole story.
For instance, in Indiana's case, that 2-3 record absolutely doesn't tell you just how good — or how bad — this team is. Their three losses have come against current No. 2-ranked Iowa, No. 3 Cincinnati, and No. 7 Penn State. They are a combined 17-1 so far this season, with the only loss coming last Saturday when Penn State lost at Iowa.
In other words, a whole lot of college football teams playing Indiana's schedule would be 2-3 right now. That's really not a reach.
The Hoosiers returned to work Sunday after a much-needed bye week. It was an important week for everyone in the program to sort of hit the re-set button. The first half of their schedule was brutal, and they didn't respond to the challenge very well. They had a chance to beat Cincinnati — and probably should have if not for a bunch of catastrophic turnovers — but got blown out at Iowa and Penn State, like a lot of teams do.
On Monday, I asked Tom Allen point blank, what's more concerning, the three losses themselves, or HOW those games have been lost.
"Well, losing them is probably the No. 1 thing, and then you go back and you evaluate why and how,'' Allen said. "Yeah, it's frustrating in some ways, and you've just got to learn from it. We go through and do a five-game analysis, going through and breaking everything down in all three phases and looking at the production and different things.''
There's been a lot to be concerned about with Indiana's offense, which scored only six points and Iowa and was shut out 24-0 at Penn State.
"The things that stick out for me offensively is not being consistent, not running the ball consistently, not scoring touchdowns offensively,'' Allen said. "Those are obvious things. Our execution hasn't been what it was expected to be. And the play of our quarterbacks, that to me hasn't been to the standard of what we know we have to have to win those kind of games.
"You play those caliber teams, whether you play them early or play them late, you have to be able to score points when you get down to the red zone and you have to be execute and throw and run the football and protect it. Turning the ball over stuck out in a major way as a negative for us. You can't do that. When you do, you lose football games. To me, that really frustrates me a lot, all the turnovers on offense.''
The defense has been better than the offense, but it's only been good, not great. Same with special teams, which has made some big plays, but given up just as many.
"The lack of creating takeaways on defense, it's frustrating,'' he said. "We know it goes in cycles, and we know sometimes that's part of it. We've got some, but not near enough. We've played good defense a lot of the time ,but not good enough, in my opinion. We still have got to get better. We have to continue to improve in the red zone and keep them out of the end zone and creating more takeaways and creating more field positions for the offense. Those are things that stick out for me.
"Special teams have been solid. I think that one big long kickoff return, that was just back-breaking in that game in Cincinnati.''
It's all about better execution, he said, and in all three phases.
"It hasn't been there. It has to be, or when you play teams of that caliber, they'll make you pay for those mistakes,'' Allen said. "If you maybe play lesser teams, they don't show up as much, don't cost you as much. But that's not been the case. We've had the opportunity to play some really good football teams, and therefore we had to be at our best, at our best right away out of the gate.
"Definitely, it's been frustrating and disappointing. But at the same time, like I say, you hit reset. You learn from those mistakes. We've got a football team that has a lot of character to it, and toughness to it and a lot of fight. And I expect that to be the case this weekend.''
The tough start doesn't mean things get any easier. No. 10 Michigan State is undefeated at 6-0, and comes to Bloomington this weekend. The following week, it's No. 6 Ohio State, who's playing so well right now that they would probably be favored against every team in the country not named Georgia.
But here's the rub on that. Ohio State is great, but we'll get to them next week. Michigan State is 6-0, and they've been a big surprise to me this season. But let me make this bold statement:
If Michigan State had played Indiana's schedule this season instead of their own, they'd be 2-3 right now, too.
So far, the Spartans have beaten Northwestern, Youngstown State, Miami, Nebraska, Western Kentucky and Rutgers. The three nonconference opponents are a combined 5-10. Michigan State is 3-0 in the Big Ten, but the combined league record of their three league opponents is 1-8, with the only win being Nebraska's 56-7 blowout of that same putrid Northwestern team.
Here's bold statement No. 2: If Indiana had played Michigan State's schedule instead of their own, I think they'd be 6-0 and ranked in the top-10, too.
It's as much who you play as how you play, remember?
But that is why I asked Allen that question, because the Hoosiers have been knocked around a bit during those two Big Ten losses, getting outscored 58-6. As Allen has said, the quality of the opponent has exposed Indiana's weaknesses. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr., coming off a second ACL injury, hasn't been his usual self, throwing seven interceptions already. He's never thrown more than four in any previous season.
Indiana hasn't run the ball well either, or been good enough on defense and special teams. But this bye week helped, helped a lot, in getting refreshed and restarted. The message is clear. This is still a good football team, and now they need to go out and prove it.
Starting on Saturday against Michigan State.
"We just need to play our best football. We haven't played our best football yet,'' Allen said. "We haven't played with all three phases working together. That's been challenging for guys. When you ask them as a group, they know, they know we haven't. They know we can, and they expect us to. And that's what excites me.
"We have a great opportunity ahead of us. We have an awesome schedule, where we play against the best in the country each and every week. And guys have to be able to step up here. That's why they came here. That's what excites me. It's a great opportunity for this football team to come together, to face adversity in the eye, to not back down from it, to grow together, get stronger together and learn to fight together and finish together. Just go play our best.''
It's a collective team effort, for sure. Michigan State is good, with an exceptional rushing attack. But how much of that success has been because of their opposition?
For Indiana, Saturday is once again a proving ground. Michigan State is favored, by a field goal, but the Hoosiers clearly expect to win. Allen does, for sure.
"To me, the biggest thing is for us to play our best football together,'' he said. "We need complementary offense, defense, special teams, working together, creating opportunities for the other sides of the ball. When those opportunities come, they seize them, and we take advantage of it. And we continue to feed off of that and feed off of each other.
"To me, we haven't done that collectively as a whole group for a full game. We've only done it in spurts. But we've got to do it together — and do it for four quarters.''
Related stories on Indiana football
- OHIO STATE GAME TIME SET: The big Ohio State-Indiana showdown on Oct. 23 in Bloomington will be played under the lights at Memorial Stadium. Here's the game time and TV information. CLICK HERE
- PENIX STATUS UNCERTAIN: Indiana coach Tom Allen said that quarterback Michael Penix Jr is "still week-to-week'' with a shoulder injury, and confirmed that no updates will be given on his healthy prior to Saturday's kickoff with Michigan State. CLICK HERE
- 5 TEAMS IN AP TOP 10: For the first time ever in the 75-year history of the Associated Press college football poll, there are five Big Ten teams in the top-10, including Iowa at No. 2. Here's the story and the complete top-25 poll. CLICK HERE