In Indiana everybody says keep the big red ball rolling—and hands you a little red ball. Everybody is superstitiously afraid to change clothes and is looking for lucky pennies. Everybody is making reservations for Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Everybody is praying that their punter will—please—punt. Everybody is doing all of this because a football phenomenon has overflowed the banks of the Wabash, and although undemented people think that reality is going to set back in very soon, it just might not. As everybody in Indiana says, God may be alive and playing defensive end for the Hoosiers.
No matter who is really at defensive end, a miracle of some sort has occurred. Indiana University, a school with about as much romance in its football past as a stone quarry, won its seventh straight game last week when it slipped by Wisconsin 14-9. Indiana does not usually win seven games in seven years. Granted, the Hoosiers have not exactly overpowered the class teams of the nation. In fact, all of the poor Wisconsins on its schedule have a combined record of 12-34-3 which, as statistics go, rates up there with Germany's record in world wars. Moreover, Indiana has barely beaten six of its victims, resorting to some of the most self-torturing climaxes since radio serials. But Indiana is 7-0, nevertheless, for the first time in its history, and there it sits in the national ratings, one of the only four perfect-record teams left in major college football and tied for the lead in the Big Ten conference.
Indiana really is only a couple of heartbeats away from the Rose Bowl now. If, somehow or other, in some implausible way, the Hoosiers can win one of their three remaining games—against Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue—they have a smiling chance. If they can win two, they are likely to go for certain. Or if they could just defeat Minnesota on November 18, that alone might do it, for Purdue cannot go. In the complicated Big Ten scramble, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota each has a 4-0 record. Because of a wonderful freak of scheduling, they must all play each other 'in their last three games.
What has made the season so glorious for Indiana is its football tradition. Although it has been playing the game for 81 years, it has captured only one conference championship, and that was in 1945 when most squads still had their quarterbacks off throwing hand grenades. Indiana has produced only 10 teams in the last 50 years with a won-lost percentage better than .500, and it has never turned out a unanimous All-America. Football has been so curiously distressed at Indiana that its present fans actually look back with fondness on the glory-filled year of 1958 when the Hoosiers came up with a 5-3-1 record.
November 13, 1967
Out of the Ivy League and into this dreary setting in 1965 came Johnny Pont, who reeks of energy and optimism and all such attributes that good coaches have. With him this year is a lunatic group of sophomores who do some of the things Pont tells them and a few things he would not dream of telling them. And with him, too, has been, well—luck. Add it up, and suddenly the past is meaningless. Indiana has come from behind to win, and Indiana has held on to win. It has won with a clock-beating drive and with a desperate goal-line defense. It has won throwing, and running, and kicking and screaming.
"All I know is, we're uninhibited and unexpected," says Pont, who is not the kind to talk about luck but is pleased because the Indiana basketball coach hides lucky pennies around Pont's office for Pont to find. "I ask my players what they're going to do to us next, and they just giggle, because I'm sure they don't know either."
Standing on the sideline with a red thermos cup that his manager constantly keeps filling with coffee, Pont has agonized while his Hoosiers have survived in the following manner:
They began by edging Kentucky 12-10 when sophomore Quarterback Harry Gonso threw a fourth-down, 23-yard pass to End Al Gage that was deflected—yes—into his hands for a touchdown. Next they beat Kansas 18-15 on a 24-yard field goal by Dave Kornowa, who is not the regular place-kicker but who was asked to attempt it because Indiana's real kicker, Don Warner, had, at the time, an arthritic toe. The Hoosiers then topped Illinois 20-7 after Linebacker Brown Marks caused a first-down Illinois fumble on Indiana's 12-yard line late in the fourth quarter when Pont's team was clinging to a 13-7 lead. They had Iowa beaten the next Saturday until sophomore Halfback John Isenbarger decided it would be fun to try to run from punt formation on fourth down and failed, setting up the Hawkeyes for a go-ahead touchdown. Undaunted, Indiana came back to drive 60 yards for a score with 53 seconds left and win 21-17. Isenbarger, incredibly, did the same thing against Michigan the next week, and thereby made himself one of the Big Ten's most celebrated backs of the year. Instead of punting late in the game, he ran—from his own 13-yard line—and failed. Michigan tied the score, and Pont's team had to drive 85 yards to win 27-20 in the last two minutes. That was the third time during the season Isenbarger had decided on his own to run instead of punt and the second time he had failed.
"When he did it against Michigan, it was the maddest I've ever been in my life," says Pont, who in past years has been with a winner at Miami of Ohio and Yale. Before Pont could say a word to Isenbarger on the bench, however, the big, blond sophomore rushed up to him with his hands on his headgear and yelled something. "Coach," Isenbarger shouted. "Why do I do things like that?" It was a question Pont would like to have answered.
The suspense of seeing Isenbarger in punt formation has given the crowd at Indiana home games a new chant that goes: "Punt, John, punt!" Her son's missteps even led Mrs. Isenbarger to send a wire to her boy in Phoenix the day Indiana defeated Arizona 42-7. The wire read: DEAR JOHN. PLEASE PUNT.
Isenbarger is one of three exciting sophomore backs who have made the basic difference in Indiana's team. The others are Gonso, a fast deceptive quarterback, and Jade Butcher, a flanker who has already set some pass-receiving records and whose name—think of it for a second, Jade Butcher—sounds good enough either to insure football stardom or inspire a TV western.
All three of the sophomores are gifted athletes, and Pont outrecruited some heavyweights to land them for Indiana. Notre Dame and Michigan badly wanted Isenbarger. He may be good enough to make the Hoosiers' starting basketball team and he has pole-vaulted over 13 feet. Michigan State came close on Gonso, a Findlay, Ohio marvel who was a state diving champion, a 10.2 sprinter and enough of a baseball catcher to receive a bonus offer from the Detroit Tigers. There is a simple measure of how Gonso improves Indiana football: last season the longest run an Indiana player made was 12 yards. Gonso beat that figure five times on Saturday against Wisconsin. Butcher is from near the Bloomington campus, a home-towner, a tough stonecutter who blocks as well as he catches. Purdue wrestled Pont for Butcher until the Indiana ink was dry on his letter of intent.
"You can't beat having athletes," says Pont. "We've got some more on this year's freshman team. We got them because we sold them on wanting to be pioneers at Indiana."
Indiana had tried to go out and get athletes once before, under Phil Dickens in 1957, and all it got was six years of probation from the NCAA. Pont took the job just after Indiana was released from the NCAA clink, and he has had to build from the dirt up.
Gonso, Isenbarger and Butcher were never more important to the cause than against Wisconsin last Saturday in cold, slightly snowy Bloomington. Nor were the precious fates that have controlled Indiana's destiny ever more necessary.
For most teams in the Top 10, a winless foe like Wisconsin would be a bore, but Indiana followers have learned their team could be playing Sweet Briar and be an even-money bet to lose. Bloomington was gurgling over with excited, worried, hopeful people wearing red caps, handing out little red balls and carrying homemade signs: JOHN ISENBARGER IS BART MAVERICK; HARRY GONSO WEARS ELEVATOR SHOES; PURDUE VOTES DEMOCRATIC; GOD WOULD PUNT. And 47,000 poured into Indiana's stadium to see if it all could last another week.
Indiana runs a nifty, far-flung I formation that features Gonso's passes and keepers, Isenbarger's slants and halfback passes, and Butcher's "messing around" pass patterns and crackback blocking. Early in the first quarter, after a punt and a helpful penalty, the Hoosiers got the ball on Wisconsin's 30-yard line and put all of their talents together. Gonso, who calls 90% of the plays, ran for eight yards. Isenbarger threw a pass that Butcher leaped and caught while being crushed by two defenders, and then Gonso, who phoned Pont early during the week after being injured in the Arizona game and began by saying, "Coach, this is Harry Gonso—remember me?" passed 11 yards to Isenbarger for a touchdown. The red ball was rolling—to a stop.
There were now 52 minutes left in the game, and although Gonso would zip around for 127 yards before the day ended, Indiana was to get no more offense going with consistency. It would simply have to hold Wisconsin to win. It held, in the usual Indiana fashion. For instance, on the last play of the first half, with Indiana leading 7-3, Gonso threw a fiat pass right into the hands of Wisconsin Linebacker Sam Wheeler. The nearest tackier to Wheeler was in Fort Wayne, and the linebacker headed for the Hoosiers' goal as the crowd gasped. He ran for 35 yards without any trouble and was at the Indiana 25 with his touchdown in sight when one of his teammates came roaring up from behind and tripped him. Really.
Shortly before, there had been almost as big a thrill. Isenbarger had stood back in his end zone to punt, with the crowd chanting the usual "Punt, John, punt!" But the snap was high and went astray. There was Isenbarger, with his back to all those football players, stooping in his own end zone trying to pick up the ball. It was ridiculous. Wisconsin linemen came pouring in on him, and Pont poured his coffee over his hands when he saw Isenbarger was not going to fall on the ball for a nice, cautious safety. Oh, no. John had been told to punt. He picked up the ball, ran around the end zone for an hour or two and then somehow kicked the ball 40 yards through a tiny hole in the wall of Wisconsin linemen that was upon him.
In the third quarter the Hoosiers got their winning touchdown. A Wisconsin pass was deflected, intercepted and returned to the Badger 27, and a defensive holding penalty moved Indiana close enough to score. The 14 points proved to be just enough, Wisconsin drove to a touchdown in the fourth quarter and got the ball again on its 34-yard line with 3½ minutes left. It looked like time enough against Indiana's overworked defense. The Badgers proceeded to hit five passes, two of them on fourth down. They got to midfield. They got to the Indiana 30. They got to the 25. They got to the 19. They got to the 10. There was now time for one more play. Indiana's defense looked about as organized as a panty raid. The Wisconsin quarterback, John Boyajian, faded back, and it would have been funny if Indiana's rooters had then chanted, "Punt, John, punt!" but they were too busy dying.
Worried? Don't be. Everything worked out all right, of course. Boyajian threw the ball over the library, which is a mile away. And Indiana could stay delirious for another week.