BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When you have four-plus turnovers in a game, including a fourth-quarter fumble two yards away from the game-winning touchdown, it's hard to say that one play made a difference in Indiana's breath-draining blood-letting 38-24 loss to No. 8 Cincinnati on Saturday.
But one play did make a difference.
One stinkin' play.
It was late in the second quarter and Indiana was kicking Cincinnati's butt. The Bearcats, who are legitimately good and legitimately experienced and are ranked in the top-1o for good reason, were getting their hat handed to them.
In the first 25 minutes of the biggest nonconference game at Memorial Stadium in 40 years, playoff worthy Cincinnati had run 24 plays — and gained a grand total of 34 yards. They had one first down, three three-and-outs and Indiana had forced two turnovers on two other drives, both of which were turned into touchdowns. Indiana was ahead 14-0 and cruising,
Cruising like that cool dude driving down the highway in a convertible, with one hand on the wheel and wind blowing though his hair. Complete cruise control.
Their seventh possession was about to end, too. It was third-and-10 from the Cincinnati 25 and heralded Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, who had been under duress from Indiana's aggressive defense the entire half, had thrown another incomplete pass.
Ridder had to hurry his throw because Indiana defensive end Jaren Handy was closing in on him quickly from his blind side, and hit him just as he was throwing. Handy's hit pushed them both forward and Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden, who was blitzing from the other side, hit Ridder, too. Their helmets collided, and the ball fell harmlessly after Ridder released it.
The drive was over. It was time for another Cincinnati punt.
But then the game was stopped, and the play was reviewed by the replay official. No one in the stands at the sold-out Memorial Stadium, and no one watching across the nation on TV, knew why. Indiana coach Tom Allen didn't know either, and he didn't get much information from the officials.
A few minutes later, the referee announced that McFadden had made helmet-to-helmet contact with Ridder. It was targeting, and McFadden, Indiana's best player and leader on defense, was ejected from the game.
There was contact by McFadden as Ridder and Handy came forward, but it was incidental and certainly not intentional.
But for that, he was gone.
And the game turned on a dime just like that.
A massive momentum swing
Instead of punting, Cincinnati's moribund offense was able to stay on the field after the penalty. Four straight plays gained double-digit yards and then running back Jerome Ford, a Tampa, Fla,, native like McFadden, scored two plays later on a 6-yared run.
Befor the McFadden ejection? Cincinnati went punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, fumble.
After the ejection? Touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown.
That's how big that call was.
And listen to this:
"I don't like targeting calls, I don't like throwing guys out of games,'' Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said. "I didn't see it, to be honest with you, whatever, it is what it is, but it obviously gave us a first down and gave us the ball back where we hadn't created any momentum before that happened.
"We needed a spark, we needed to get out of a little bit of a funk that was something that gave us an opportunity to do that.''
That's Fickell, the other coach. He knew how critical that play was, because not only did it take Indiana's best player off the field, but it also gave Cincinnati the juice it needed to finally get rolling. The first half-ish of the game they gained 34 total yards.
After McFadden left, they gained 294 yards and scored 38 points.
So, yeah, it was huge. Or ''massive,'' as Indiana's Tom Allen called it.
"It was massive, without question. It changed everything,'' he said. "He's a really special We were dominating them. Dominating. They had one first down and it was almost the end of the half.
"He's a great football player, and when you lose your captain, though, that's tough.''
But other guys have to step up, though. ''
Fellow linebacker Cam Jones, who had six tackles, has played side-by-side with McFadden for four years now, and he admitted it wasn't the same without his partner.
"Micah, he's a great player and a ballplayer, and we knew we had to bring the energy. We did that, and I hate he couldn't finish the game with us. He plays with tremendous effort, and I feel like that was an effort play.
"At the end of the day, we still need to do our job as a defense. It hurts, but at the same time, it's all 11. We've got to find a way, no matter who's out there. I trust my defense, I trust my team, I don't care who it is.''
Jones and McFadden have been together for four years, and this was a tough one to swallow.
"Me and Micah, we came in at the same time and we've got a lot of chemistry together. We can. read each other's minds,'' Jones said. "We're a team out there, though, and that was a tough loss.
"It was a very disappointed (locker room). We were very upset because we know we left a lot of opportunities out on the field. We've got to eliminate those (mistakes) at the end of the day.''
Next up is a road trip to Western Kentucky on Saturday night. The Hilltoppers are 1-1, but they can. be a dangerous passing team. Quarterback Bailey Zappe has back-to-back 400-yard passing games to start the season.
Indiana needs to turn things around in a hurry.
“It's not where any of us wanted to be, expected us to be at this point,” Allen said of IU’s 1-2 start. “As I said to them, ‘Here we are. What are you going to do? How are you going to respond?’”
That's a great question, isn't it? They didn't respond well at all when they lost McFadden. There's plenty of depth in that locker room, but the backups did not play well on Saturday. That just can't happen.
McFadden's absence was huge. It turned the game around, for sure.
And it can't happen again.
I'll be the first to admit, I hate the targeting rule in college football. I'm all for player safety and all, but sometimes the rule is too harsh.
I've watched the replay multiple times, and there was no helmet-to-helmet for sure. By the letter of the rule, the correct call was made that McFadden needed to be ejected. That's the rule.
But that's the problem, the rule. There needs to be more flexibility, sort of like flagrant fouls in basketball, where there are a couple of different options. There wasn't even a penalty called on the field after the hit.
At the very least, there needs to be two calls for targeting, some that's just a penalty, and you walk off the yardage but the player doesn't get ejected. For vicious hits, I'm all for tossing them out of the game, but this was completely inadvertent.
Losing McFadden, sadly, meant losing the game. And that's a shame.