Adam Replogle (98) is one of several players IU coach Kevin Wilson said has played a big part in helping turn Indiana into a much more competitive Big Ten team.
If Indiana’s first nine games helped the Hoosiers see what they are capable of, then the last two should have left them no doubt about how much they still have to grow.
This team’s greatest accomplishment this fall has been simply that it made nearly anything possible. Still too young, too inexperienced, too outmanned and overmatched and immature to contend with the Big Ten’s elite, these Hoosiers at least earned themselves a chance, week in and week out.
Talk of a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game was always more fantasy than real possibility, but at least Indiana earned that hope. Evolving from the only BCS conference school not to beat an FBS opponent in 2011 to going bowling in 2012 would have been impressive, but it was, in the final analysis, a task slightly too large for this team.
Still, coming from where Indiana ended last season, after an eight-point loss in a disappointing Old Oaken Bucket game, simply making it to November with postseason options should be commended as a job well done.
In that same respect, IU players and coaches have every right to feel disappointed at missing out on a bowl game at least, given how close some of their losses have been. It’s hard not to wonder how the season unfolds if Tre Roberson doesn’t break his leg in Boston in September.
But in the last eight days, Indiana has been made, rather roughly, to understand how much further it must climb to being competitive every week in the conference, and not just when it runs into stumbling opponents.
Perhaps the strangest quality of success is that it creates expectation. The impact is harder when the fall is longer.
Let’s be clear: Indiana is not as good of a football team as Wisconsin or Penn State. It should, just based on talent and experience, have lost these last two weeks.
And maybe there’s a case to be made that this team in particular is at the end of its mental and emotional rope, having played in so many close games this year and having perhaps achieved above its station on numerous occasions.
But in its last eight quarters, Indiana has been outscored 107-36. Its quarterback play has begun to recede, as Cam Coffman’s completion percentage in the last two games is nearly seven full points lower than his season average. The defense has been cut apart, on the ground by Wisconsin and through the air by Penn State. In short, Indiana has been outclassed on both offense and defense in the two games this season where the stakes have been greatest.
“We need to not get used to it, because things have got to change next year,” redshirt junior tight end Ted Bolser said, speaking of trying to recover from two such heavy losses. “We had a lot of games that we know we could have won. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
“We still have to look for Purdue and we still have one more game left, so we have to go try to beat them.”
Yes, as with last season, Purdue still lingers, offering one last opportunity to add tangible achievement to a season of both tangible and intangible improvement.
The game stands in a different place than it did one year ago, when Indiana simply looked at retaining the Old Oaken Bucket as a chance to salvage something from an awful season. This year, a win in West Lafayette would be a statement of intent for an Indiana program that returns all but three starters to next year’s squad, gets Roberson back and has eight home games on the schedule.
Kevin Wilson has never preached anything but ambition, never seemed comfortable or pleased simply with competitiveness. Wilson has simply preached measured forward progress. He refused to get too bullish when Indiana beat Illinois and Iowa in back-to-back weeks, and he declined to be too negative after losing so heavily in these last two games.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for my players,” Wilson said after Saturday’s game. “I’m sorry we’re 4-7, but there are some guys who have changed our program. We’re talking Adam (Replogle), we’re talking Kofi (Hughes) and (Mitch) Ewald’s plays. There are a lot of guys that I love and respect.”
Win or lose in West Lafayette, Wilson’s optimism is allowable. The future does look bright in Bloomington, particularly by Indiana’s modest historical standards.
Indiana did look bright and full of potential at times this season, both in wins and losses. It also looked completely overpowered in arguably the two biggest games of its season in these last two weeks.
In fall 2012, IU has learned both what it is capable of, and that the new standard for which it must now aim is far higher than what is often considered normal at Indiana.
Heeding both lessons, next week and in the next nine months, will both serve the Hoosiers very well going forward.