One day after IU football lost its fourth game in a row, Coach Tom Allen brought his seniors before the rest of their teammates.
It was a typical Sunday afternoon team meeting, but these circumstances were different from previous weeks, because IU’s back is now firmly against the wall. The Hoosiers are 3-6, and winless in the Big Ten. Three wins in three games are what it will take for IU to ensure a third consecutive bowl appearance.
Allen wanted the rest of the Hoosiers to look their eldest teammates in the eyes, and he wanted the seniors to look right back at them. So each senior stood at the front of the room, and their coach laid out the task at hand. It was a symbolic moment, Allen said.
“It's not about the challenge before you,” Allen said. “It's those who are beside you. That's what I believe is a powerful thing that our guys have bought into. The guys beside them are a special group of seniors.”
The journey to a bowl game for IU now is simple, and far from impossible. The Hoosiers’ remaining schedule begins this weekend with a trip to play Illinois (2-7, 0-6 in the Big Ten). It’ll follow with games against Rutgers and Purdue, which both lost to IU last year but are each 4-5 and look improved.
Illinois is all Allen is focused on this week, but he wanted Sunday’s spotlight on the seniors to have an impact that will last through the rest of November. IU’s seniors that have been with the program their entire careers still have the chance to lead the Hoosiers to three straight bowl games for the first time since the late 1980s.
“There is a sense of urgency that I believe we have to have and we will have,” Allen said. “We have some great leaders in that senior class.”
There are plenty of seniors IU can lean on. The problem? They’re not distributed evenly around the team. Allen’s defense has three seniors starting on the defensive line, two seniors leading the linebacker corps and three more seniors among the top defensive backs.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, on the other hand, has just senior tight end Ian Thomas and senior quarterback Richard Lagow among his biggest contributors. The offense has been made even younger at times due to Thomas’ injury struggles and Lagow being benched throughout October while freshman Peyton Ramsey earned four starts in a row.
Lacking seniors doesn’t excuse poor play, and the IU offense has found other steady hands, like redshirt junior receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. But because IU needs three wins in a row to end the season, a game against a two-win Illinois team brings an added amount of pressure.
The defense can rest a bit easier knowing senior linebackers Chris Covington and Tegray Scales will provide a veteran presence at linebacker when things get tough.
On offense, it’s a bit more difficult. Take the offensive line, for example. It’s been a position marked by consistent senior leadership for years at IU. But this season, DeBord doesn’t have a single senior among his starting linemen. It’s a scenario the longtime coach said he’s never found himself in before.
“That’s another position that you’d like older guys to be playing,” DeBord said. “You always have a senior or two in there usually in good years, but not right now.”
Allen says he’s always looking for different ways to motivate his group. Given the 0-6 start to the Big Ten schedule that IU’s endured, one would imagine Allen has almost used up his entire bag of tricks.
But Allen has found another possible motivating tool, and the Hoosiers’ margin of error is so slim that it might be his last chance this season. He hopes creating a sense of urgency will finally produce results. Seniors are best equipped to handle urgent pressure, so Allen will look to them to lead the way.
“There is no next year for seniors,” Allen said. “That's why it's valuable to have strong leadership from that group and strong play from that group, because they have a different sense of urgency about them.”
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