Shades of yesteryear for IU football 2020


Last in a three-part series comparing special Indiana University football seasons of 1945, 1967 and 2020.

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Tom Allen has transformed the Zoom press conference into an art form, the football version of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

He takes care of routine business about opponents and how his guys are doing, but dropped into the half-hour question-and-answer sessions a few times a week are snippets if stitched together would offer a treatise on life.

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The utterances often reveal the heart and emotions of the man leading the Indiana University football program to uncommon accomplishments during a time of turmoil.

The 2020 football season has been a months-long broken field run, culminating with the fancy holiday destination of Tampa, Florida, achieved because the Hoosiers were resolute, taking cues on togetherness from a guy not afraid to publicly say he loves them and never wavering from a determined mission plan.

“What an awesome group of guys we have,” Allen said earlier in December. “I love ‘em so much. I care about these guys. I want them to be great. Greatness is reserved for the few.”

The Hoosiers kept surprising college football nation this fall, taking down three ranked teams while building a 6-1 record and their own No. 7 national ranking, on a path to Saturday’s Outback Bowl.

His has been leadership marked more by earnestness than swashbuckling. Allen has been Coach Dad. Allen’s men, his players, borrowed to mold over four years, are somebody’s sons who raised them until he recruited them.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to be a finisher of those things your parents instilled in you,” Allen said. “The guys know it’s bigger than a game.”

Football as life its own self.

Almost no-go

The poison in the air nearly derailed the whole season. The mysterious virus paralyzing society sidelined Indiana University football workouts in July.

Then protests calling for social injustice convulsed the nation and someone dear to IU was murdered.

The Big Ten ruled there would be no conference fall sports played.

Sometimes, it seems the adversity speech is part of every football coach’s playbook. But this year, there was more of a desperate desire to downplay. In a season that held great promise after an-almost-there 2019 season of 8-5, Allen didn’t whine or complain when it was all threatened to be scuttled.

Instead, he calmly responded to each disconcerting development as if returning serve in a ping-pong game.

Allen said he trusted decision-makers of higher rank, athletic directors and university presidents. He reminded sportswriters the title in front of his name read football coach, not doctor.

In March, when the virus first swept the United States and campuses closed, spring football practice was canceled. Players and coaches communicated via Zoom.

In-person workouts were permitted in mid-June. But only days after Allen recognized the tenuousness of those voluntary workouts, the university locked the doors on athletes. The Big Ten announced there would be no nonconference games contested.

The power and intractability of the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of Tuesday had infected 82 million people worldwide and killed about 1.8 million, had not yet been fully calculated.

On Aug. 10, the Big Ten said nay to all fall sports.

Then, as other major conferences began competing, the Big Ten reversed itself, announcing a schedule of league-only games played between the third week in October and the third week in December.

Wrapped around the virus scares and risks was the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and then other Black Americans, their deaths seemingly unjustified and racially motivated. Hundreds of thousands of Americans marched in the streets in the solidarity of protest.

In the midst of the tensions, Chris Beaty, former IU player who competed from 2000 to 2003 who had a reputation for good works and helping community causes, was shot to death at 38 in Indianapolis. It was not until early December an arrest was made and a murder charge filed.

A saddened Allen spoke of Beaty’s “passion for life and Indiana football” and said he “energized me every time we were together.”

The inside cover of the 2020 team media guide features a full-page picture of Beaty with the words “In Loving Memory of Chris Beaty, 1981-2020.”

The year’s focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and the demands for social justice, appeared to turn back to the clock to 1945 when All-American George Taliaferro helped integrate campus restaurants and movie theaters and to the late 1960s, another era of massive street demonstrations linked to the Vietnam War and civil rights.

In a “tumultuous time in this country,” Allen said, it was important for players to know themselves.

“That’s why you have to live your life with core principles and core values,” Allen said. “We’re helping them form that foundation. Trust in something bigger than you. It’s a really heavy thing. It’s real life. It makes football seem trivial.”

Finally, play ball

Despite intrusions of what seemed like too much real life, football never seemed trivial to a motivated team that justifiably felt respect was often still around the next corner.

For so long, Penn State had been a bully of the East and IU had been a doormat in the Big Ten. Oct. 24 opening day heralded change, a 36-35 Hoosiers overtime triumph that established the tone of the season.

Slick quarterback Michael Penix Jr. began teaching people his name, and Penn State began a slide to 4-5. At the time, however, the Nittany Lions were ranked No. 8 and favored. This was IU’s first win over a top 10 team since 1987.

Soon, such wins were not declared upsets. IU beat Rutgers 37-21, Michigan 38-21 and Michigan State 24-0.

In the Michigan State game, Tom Allen Jr., the coach’s son, was injured. He had to undergo season-ending surgery, and Tom Allen, the father, showed his vulnerability.

“We had a strong embrace afterwards and shed a lot of tears together,” the coach said.

Next was Ohio State, a top-four team and three-touchdown favorite. The Hoosiers were not happy with that odds dismissal. Both schools were unbeaten, and there was more attention on IU than usual.

“Each week, it’s the biggest game on the schedule,” Penix said, parroting Allen’s outlook and message. “We just want to focus on what we can control.”

Early on, the Hoosiers could not control the Buckeyes, trailing 35-7 before a spirited second-half comeback that left more people talking about the losers than the winners. Penix threw for nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns. Ty Fryfogle caught three of them for 218 yards.

“So disappointed that we fell short,” Allen said, “but proud of the heart, the fight, the toughness of this team.”

More would be needed.

Home stretch

If any team encapsulated the aggravation of the 2020 football season, it was Maryland. The Terrapins lost three games to virus interruptus.

They did not cancel on IU, though. The Hoosiers prevailed 27-11, a game in which the steady defense of the season began to truly exert itself. When needed, the D forced fumbles, intercepted passes and made big stops.

The unit was headed to unprecedented recognition with seven players gaining All-Big Ten honors at one level or another, including linebacker Micah McFadden (also named third-team All-American), linebacker Cam Jones, defensive tackle Jerome Johnson (four sacks) and defensive backfield figures Tiawan Mullen (3.5 sacks, three interceptions) and Jamar Johnson (four interceptions).

Running back Stevie Scott III paid the defenders one of their biggest compliments.

“Those guys are ballhawks,” he said.

The pressure on the defense increased, though, after the Maryland game. Penix hurt a knee and was knocked out for the year. Backup Jack Tuttle, who practically never took game snaps, replaced him. Tuttle’s appearance was brief, but subsequently, he started the first game of his career against ranked Wisconsin a week later, Dec. 5.

Suffering from a shortage of true believers, the Hoosiers were still two-touchdown underdogs for Tuttle Time. Penix’s fill-in kept the Hoosiers alive in the run for the roses, if only Ohio State would lose. Allen spoke of Tuttle’s poise in the 14-6 win, but the game ball really belonged to the defense.

As they ran off the field, some IU players paused behind Allen, about to be interviewed on camera, shouting to high school players to come to Indiana and play for this man.

“Best coach in football right here,” one player yelled.

The last regular-season game on the schedule, as usual, was against Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket. This is when Allen’s Indiana roots surfaced. Born in New Castle in 1970, a player at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, a graduate of Maranatha Baptist University, he is very much a Hoosier in his bones.

He spoke eloquently and in heartfelt tones about how he had watched the rivalry game for years, from the time he was little, and how he loves games with trinkets such as the bucket are at stake.

And then the game was called off, not once, but twice, because of the virus infiltrating players on both sides. Indiana had 28 positive test readings. It was no exaggeration when Allen said, “It has been a hard road for this team.”

Ohio State never did lose, won the league championship game and slid into the College Football Playoff semifinals. Indiana waited to be invited to a bowl. The invite came all right with a peculiar opponent. Mississippi, 4-5 Mississippi. In a jumbled season even losing teams received bowl payoffs, rewards just for surviving.

Indiana’s bowl history would fill a pamphlet, not a book. This is the Hoosiers’ 13th bowl in 122 years of play. The Rose Bowl of 1968 was the school’s first bowl. There have been a mix of Holiday Bowls, All-American Bowls, Liberty Bowls, Peach Bowls and Independence Bowls over the half-century since.

The last time IU won a bowl game, it was the Copper Bowl, 24-0 over Baylor in 1991. Last year, the Hoosiers painfully lost the Gator Bowl to Tennessee 23-22, allowing 14 points in 31 seconds in the fourth quarter.

The players know the history.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Jamar Johnson said. “We’re ready to redeem ourselves this year. We know what’s at stake. We know this program has won only three bowl games.”

The Hoosiers of 2020 seek to etch their names on a bowl trophy as proof of how they changed their program’s historical narrative — they hope for good.

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