Signature Win All That's Lacking For Hoosiers In Turnaround Season

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The scenes were set about 560 miles apart and over the span of about 40-something hours, but the message remained the same.

Scene I, State College, Pa. — It's about 15 minutes after No. 24-ranked Indiana had lost a 34-27 heartbreaker to No. 9 Penn State, and Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden was sitting on a chair in the cramped visitor's media room deep in the bowels of Beaver Stadium. He was physically exhausted, and it was obvious as he answered questions that he had left it all out on the field.

He hated that the Hoosiers had come up short, because they came up to Happy Valley to get a win, something that had never been done in school history in 11 tries.

"We definitely wanted that signature win. We're working on it, and we're going to get it. We thought we were going to get it today,'' McFadden said. "There are just a few more plays we need to make to finish off games like this. It's a game of inches, and we were that close to making the plays that would have made the difference between winning and losing.

"This team, throughout the season, we just keep getting better. Since the beginning, we've known we can hang with teams like this. It's not really surprising to us, because we're building this, and it definitely shows what we can do.''

Scene II, inside Henke Hall at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington — Building yes, but the construction on the Indiana football rebuild is not quite complete. McFadden, the sophomore from Tampa, is back, in a different chair this time, and he's much more refreshed after a weekend of recovery. Now the questions drift away from Penn State and more to No. 12 Michigan, which comes to Bloomington for a huge game on Saturday afternoon.

But the message is still the same. It's been a great season, but there's been a goal that has not been accomplished. That signature win against a top program? It hasn't happened yet, and now here's a wonderful opportunity against the Wolverines, who have beaten Indiana 23 times in a row since 1987, and 38 out of 39 times since 1967.

"Getting that big one is something we always talk about, and this is an another great opportunity with Michigan,'' McFadden said. "There's a sense of urgency too, being senior day and everything. We can get this one. We've got to. And we're confident we can.''

Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden (47), the Hoosiers' leading tackler this season, brings down a Rutgers running back during IU's 35-0 win in October.

Not to belittle the first seven wins ...

Indiana's season so far, without question, has been a success. The Hoosiers are 7-3, and it's been since 2007 that they've won so many. They made it back into the AP poll for the first time in 25-plus years, if only for a week. They had a four-game winning streak in the Big Ten, something that's only happened four times in school history.

It's all good.

But the reality of it is that they have really only won the games they were supposed to win so far, at least for the for part. 

In their three nonconference games, they were favored by 18 points (Ball State), 36 points (Eastern Illinois) and 27 points (Connecticut), and they won all three games handily, by a combined 124-27 margin.

Even during their four-game winning streak in the Big Ten, they were favored against Rutgers (27), Maryland (6) and Northwestern (8). The only game they weren't favored and won all year was at Nebraska, where they were 2-point underdogs.

Since Indiana hasn't won at historic Memorial Stadium in Lincoln in 60 years and had lost five straight times to the Cornhuskers dating back to 1975, an argument can be made that this was a signature win for the Hoosiers.

It was important, sure, but it also wasn't shocking. Nebraska is in complete rebuild mode right now. In Scott Frost's first year in 2018, they were just 4-8. They are only 4-6 this year and even lost to Purdue — a two-win team at the time — the week after losing to Indiana. 

It was great to win in Lincoln, of course, but it's not like it woke up America with the final result.

Winning at Penn State on Saturday would have done that. The Nittany Lions had been unbeaten all year before fall to perfect Minnesota the week before the Indiana  game. They were IN the first College Football Playoff bracket as the No. 4 seed in the country. A win in Happy Valley would have said that Indiana had arrived.

Moral victories don't count. Neither does covering the spread, which was 15. It's the new Indiana now, which means all that matters are the wins and the losses.

That's why McFadden slowly walked out of Beaver Stadium on Saturday knowing the Hoosiers had given their all, and it still wasn't enough. They were close, but they aren't there yet.

But they are also confident in knowing that they can do it.

And now, along comes No. 12 Michigan

In trying to find where those signature wins might come from this year, it was easy to circle Nov. 23 on the calendar for a reason.

Michigan has been good under Jim Harbaugh, but for the most part, the fan base has been pretty disappointed, especially because he was only 1-9 against their arch-rivals, Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame, prior to this season.

Indiana is a non-factor to the Wolverines, of course. Winning 38 of 39 will do that.

But what's been interesting is that the Hoosiers have been close in the past four years. They've taken Michigan to overtime twice, in Bloomington in 2015 and 2017, only to come up short. They hung tough until the fourth quarter twice in Ann Arbor too, taking tight games into the fourth quarter before losing 31-20 a year ago and 20-10 in 2016.

This year, maybe the Hoosiers would be ready.

What is different about this group is that they do have faith. They do believe. They aren't scared. Not of Penn State, and certainly not of Michigan.

They know they can beat Michigan on Saturday afternoon before what should be — what better be — a raucous home crowd at Memorial Stadium. They've just been a play or two away with them four years in a row.

They're confident they can make those plays on Saturday. Everything that went wrong at Penn State, McFadden said, is easily fixable. He said Monday that he was excited for a spirited week of practice and that he couldn't wait for Saturday to get here.

They're ready to make history. They're confident they can win.

All that's left? Go do it. 

Signed, sealed and delivered. It's Michigan, a red-hot Michigan no less, a team that's been on a roll for a month and comes to town at 8-2 and as a 7-point favorite.

If Indiana can do it, it will be a signature win, for sure.