INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana coach Tom Allen surveyed the surroundings before closing his opening remarks at Big Ten Media Days on Friday.
He then issued some strong words.
“Love being in this venue,” Allen said. “Love Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s our goal to end our season playing here on Dec. 4.”
Indiana in the Big Ten championship game?
The fact Allen can say those words is a testament to the true nature of the rebuild in Bloomington, Ind. In 2019, the Hoosiers won eight games for the first time since 1993. Last season, Indiana finished 6-2 and swept Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Hoosiers were the darling of the Big Ten in a COVID-wrecked season.
Indiana lost in a 42-35 thriller to Ohio State on Nov. 21, 2020, a thriller that showed the Hoosiers were the Buckeyes’ best competition in the Big Ten last season. Allen isn’t afraid to talk about that either.
“They are the gold standard and that is who we’re chasing,” Allen said. “Our one word for 2021 is ‘Chase.’ We’re trying to chase that greatness every single day.”
Indiana’s encore in 2021 is worth watching closely, and it’s fair to say they could be the best competition for the Buckeyes again in the Big Ten East. Penn State and Michigan could make that argument, too, but the Hoosiers belong in that conversation now.
The gold standard remains. Ohio State has won 26 straight games against Indiana since the schools tied in 1990. The Hoosiers have not beat the Buckeyes since a 41-7 blowout on Oct. 8, 1988.
That is the chase. Yet Allen takes that chase seriously. He shared a story about his first season at Indiana. He would not allow players to break team huddles with “Big Ten champs.” Allen said that felt like an empty gesture and it didn’t mean enough.
Those words need to mean something.
“This is the first offseason I’ve given our players the permission to break it down on ‘Big Ten champs,’ so to me it’s all about vision and mindset,” Allen said. “The vision is very clear. To come back to this facility and play for a Big Ten championship.”
Indiana does return enough talent to be an interesting contender. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. returns after suffering a torn ACL in 2020. Penix expects to be ready for the season opener against Sept. 4. He proved to be one of the most-dynamic quarterbacks in the conference in 2020. If he’s healthy, then it’s game on.
Penix Jr. also is approaching this season with a championship-or-bust-mentality.
“That’s just something we expect to happen,” Penix Jr. said. “It’s the expectation. That’s what Coach Allen always says. That’s something we talk about a lot. We always ask each other, ‘What did you do today to win the Big Ten?””
“Whatever Coach Allen wants to do we’re going to try our best to make it happen,” Indiana receiver Ty Fryfogle added. “Wherever he wants to go we’re going to try our best to make that happen.”
Fryfogle averaged 19.5 yards per catch and scored seven TDs. Linebacker Micah McFadden led the Big Ten with six sacks. Tiawan Mullen had three interceptions. Indiana hasn’t had more than three players selected since 1988. That should happen in 2022.
Thank Allen for that. He emerged as a viral coaching star in 2020 for his pregame and postgame locker room speeches.
“That culture has been shown to the country via social media,” Allen said. “I had a lot of comments from parents and recruits about the videos they saw and how that drew them to come and check it out. But at the end of the day, it’s about the performance on the field and to break through and win some of those games we haven’t won in the past.”
Ohio State remains that game on the schedule. While Penix’s game-winning TD run against Penn State received the most attention, that loss to the Buckeyes was the ultimate teaching moment. That is where this chase begins.
“I wanted them to understand how we needed to use this opportunity to grow and allow us to continue to build this program,” Allen said. “That might have been as big a moment in the 2020 season as any was in that moment in that locker room after that tough loss.”
Indiana still has shine from that moment, but the schedule is not easy. The Hoosiers open at Iowa on Sept. 4 and face American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati two weeks later. Michigan and Penn State are road games this year, and that test-of-all-tests against Ohio State is Oct. 23.
The Hoosiers, however, still have that vision. Fryfogle bypassed the NFL Draft for this season. He is one of those who have bought into Allen’s motivational techniques and speeches.
Imagine that. An Indiana player wants to stay to try and win a Big Ten championship. That vision isn’t just Allen’s. Those words mean something.
Indiana, Big Ten champs? Those are strong words, but Allen means what he says.
“I don’t know if the word is justified, but I feel very confident in stating that the goal is to win the Big Ten East and play here on Dec. 4,” Allen said. “You have to earn the right to speak as a player when you come into a program. You have to earn the right to say certain things in front of the media. You have to be accountable for your words. Words are powerful. We have to go out and create those opportunities.”