Through hard work and commitment, Indiana has landed itself a modest record but in an important position. The Hoosiers, Inside Indiana's Zach Osterman says, deserve the right to control their own destiny in the Big Ten race.
Can Indiana beat Wisconsin?
That is the question the Big Ten will ask itself this week, the hot-button topic of debate as an improbable Leaders Division race continues to unfold. It is one to which the most common answer surely would have been “no” three months ago, and it is one that speaks not just to how far Indiana has come as a program this season, but also to how much respect the Hoosiers have earned in the process.
It’s a good word, “earned.” It’s apt. It’s fair. Indiana didn’t get to where it is right now — locked, so improbably, in a two-team race for the chance to represent its division at the Big Ten title game — through much more than commitment and hard work.
“We’re starting to see a little bit of our work pay off,” sophomore quarterback Cam Coffman said, "but at the same time, nowhere where we need to be.”
We have entered uncharted waters at this point. Indiana hasn’t won three straight games since winning four on the run in 1993. The Hoosiers haven’t finished at .500 in conference play since going 4-4 a year later.
Yes, it is worth acknowledging that, in a normal year, Indiana is well behind Ohio State at this point (as is everyone else in the division, and basically the conference). But what about this season has seemed normal, in Bloomington or any other Big Ten city?
Kevin Wilson has suddenly become fond of saying, when asked how he treats the newfound reality that IU controls its own destiny, that it always has. He says he’s told his players time and again that each day, they control their approach and their results. For the last two weeks, the Hoosiers have behaved like a group embracing that sentiment.
Indiana deserved to win these last two games. It was the better team. Against Iowa on Saturday night, Indiana made more crucial plays, from adlibbed routes giving scrambling quarterbacks options, to an interception in the end zone to stop a would-be Iowa touchdown drive at the start of the third quarter, to crucial sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback pressures through 60 minutes.
The sentiment of Ted Bolser (right), that Indiana should still feel like it still has something to prove, reflects the attitude that has carried the Hoosiers' improvement forward all season.
All of that was made more impressive by the mettle of the opponent. Iowa has struggled this season, but beating them has rarely been a basic mission. The Hawkeyes still play straightforward football that challenges opponents to simply outmuscle and out-execute them.
These are tasks, it should be said, Indiana has not found easy in recent seasons. The Hoosiers have been competitive intermittently, but rarely have they been able to simply out-Big Ten a Big Ten team.
Saturday night, against perhaps the quintessential Big Ten opponent, Indiana did just that. For four quarters, IU controlled both lines of scrimmage, stuffed the run, pressured the quarterback and just played better.
When there were mistakes, Indiana overcame them. When adjustments were necessary, they were made. Indiana racked up more style points losing to Ohio State than it’s gained in the last two weeks, but it’s done more to offer promise for the future in these two wins than at any point in the program’s last half-decade, at least. (Yes, winning always offers validation, but HOW Indiana has won has been of paramount importance.)
Dozens of people will write or speak hundreds of words in the next six days trying to decide what will happen Saturday. For their part, the Hoosiers say they can play with and beat anyone when they’re at their best, an assertion against which this season has offered little evidence.
But the general refrain emanating from the North End Zone facility Saturday night wasn’t one of satisfaction. It was, if anything, one of annoyance, one of pragmatic recognition that this team, while promising, still has little to brag about.
“We’re 4-5, so we don’t have a good record,” redshirt junior tight end Ted Bolser said after the game. “We still have a lot to prove."
Therein lies the key for the Hoosiers — they have never allowed themselves to become content with any new accomplishment. They haven’t accepted moral or real victories as anything more than the next step, which has kept the program moving forward.
Indiana’s season might have reached its high-water mark Saturday as the sun went down. The highlight moments might now be visible only in the rear-view mirror.
But there is also an unavoidable reality descending upon Bloomington, that on Nov. 10, college football will care deeply about what happens at Memorial Stadium, that the Big Ten race will hinge, incredibly, on the answer to a simple question:
Can Indiana beat Wisconsin?