As head coach, part of Tom Allen’s job is to remain confident in his IU football team and work to keep his players positive, even when they slide their way to an 0-4 start in Big Ten play.
Allen does still believe in the Hoosiers, and he has done and said nearly everything possible to display his trust in them. But outside the program, Allen has recently received additional votes of confidence from some influential voices that reached out to him – his fellow Big Ten head coaches.
“I didn't ask them,” Allen said. “They just chose to do that. They were so complimentary of how hard we play, how well we've played, how physical we are and how tough our kids are.”
Those conversations have been used by Allen to motivate his team after it deals with another loss to a ranked opponent, this time a 17-9 defeat on Saturday against then-No. 18 Michigan State.
Allen told his players they can choose to feel sorry for themselves, which would be easy to do. The Hoosiers faced a grueling start to their Big Ten schedule that included four straight top-20 ranked opponents, and injuries have plagued IU on both sides of the ball.
Starting wide receiver Donavan Hale, who has missed the last three games, had surgery and may lose the rest of his junior year. Hale would be eligible for a medical redshirt if he doesn’t play again this season.
Sophomore defensive back A’Shon Riggins and sophomore husky Marcelino Ball remain sidelined, while senior tight end Ian Thomas could return this week after missing two of the last three weeks with various injuries.
But Allen said no injury or difficult schedule can serve as excuses for IU’s 3-4 record. He wants his team to appreciate the way it has put ranked Michigan and Michigan State teams against the ropes in consecutive weeks.
“You can get disappointed and hang your head and mope, or you can draw confidence from the way you performed,” Allen said.
One unit in particular has had the confidence-building performances Allen’s talked about, and that’s the IU defense. The Hoosiers held the Spartans without a touchdown until the fourth quarter in their last game, and have quietly moved themselves up to 29th in the country in team defense, allowing just 341.7 yards per game.
On offense, things have been stagnant. Freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey has struggled against a pair of top-five defenses in his past two games and has just 336 passing yards, a touchdown and two interceptions during that stretch.
Allen and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord have largely given Ramsey a pass for those tough performances. IU was facing some of the best defenses in the country, and Ramsey is still young and learning.
But there won't be room for excuses this Saturday against 3-4 Maryland and its 105th-ranked defense, which allows 439.1 yards per game.
To Ramsey’s credit, Debord said the young quarterback hasn’t shown any signs of fragility.
“He knows he’s going through a learning process too,” DeBord said of Ramsey. “He’s young and he’s handling that in a very mature way. I just don’t believe you can break Peyton. He is so strong mentally.”
Although No. 5 Wisconsin awaits IU after this week’s road game at Maryland, the Hoosiers have put the toughest portion of their schedule behind them.
IU’s last three games of the season are against Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue, which have a combined three Big Ten wins among them this season.
As Allen’s squad moves forward, he said he expects the challenges of facing the Big Ten’s best teams early in the season will only help the Hoosiers become sharper.
IU is halfway to bowl eligibility, and needs three more wins to get there. This weekend's game against the Terrapins, a game in which the Hoosiers are favored, could be the next step on that path to a bowl game.
“I fully expect them to be highly energized, focused and locked in to go play our best game of the season on Saturday at Maryland,” Allen said. “Our staff will lead by example, and that's what I expect.”
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