Of the many beautiful phenomena in college football, there might not be any more satisfying than a revenge game.
It’s a tale as old as the forward pass. Team A embarrasses team B, team B stews in the agony of defeat for a while, then team B comes back and beats the breaks off team A in glorious retribution.
For as long as I can remember, Indiana football has been team B in this scenario, except it doesn’t get the revenge whooping. Every year, the Hoosiers seek to check off a laundry list of opponents that humiliated them the previous season.
However, Saturday’s showdown at No. 4 Penn State will provide viewers with a rather novel twist — this time, Indiana won’t be the one out for revenge.
You already know where I’m going with this. It was the evening of Sept. 24, 2020. A sideline official had just affirmed the call that Indiana’s then-sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. had indeed stretched the football across the goal line in a gravity-defying display of flexibility to topple then-No. 8 Penn State in overtime, 36-35.
I swear by the time the Hoosiers reached the locker room, aspiring entrepreneurs were already slapping a crudely drawn silhouette of Penix diving for the pylon onto every product money could buy.
Within hours, the Penix reach was cemented in college football iconography. Within months, it came to define Indiana’s magical 2020 season.
But what about Penn State? Well, after losing despite outperforming Indiana in virtually every measurable statistic beyond points scored, Penn State stumbled to an 0-4 start in a season marred by mistakes, injuries and missed opportunities.
While the Nittany Lions ultimately scraped together a somewhat respectable 4-5 record by year’s end, the damage was done. When people picture 2020 Penn State, their vision is obscured by a red No. 9 jersey.
Nobody knows how different things would be had Penix been called out of bounds short of the goal line. Personally, I can’t help but feel like the confidence the Hoosiers gained and the embarrassment the Nittany Lions suffered in week one had ripple effects. Now, I’m wary that one of those ripple effects might be a revenge-fueled beatdown Saturday.
It sounds a bit strange suggesting any football team outside of Purdue would have a vendetta against Indiana. Maybe I’m totally wrong in claiming Penn State does. However, if I were an athlete who lost a season opener on one of the most controversial calls in recent history, I would probably harbor some strong feelings.
I highly doubt anyone on the Nittany Lions’ roster genuinely believes Penix crossed the goal line before going out of bounds. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I believe it myself. At this point, I just don’t watch the highlights too closely because I’m not ready to combat that kind of cognitive dissonance.
Penn State probably thinks it should have beaten Indiana last season, and it definitely thinks it can do so this year considering how offensively challenged the Hoosiers have appeared in long stretches against competent defenses.
Coupling that fervor within the locker room with a famously loud Beaver Stadium and the environment on Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania, will not be particularly conducive to the road team’s success.
Regardless of who you root for in Saturday’s matchup, try to at least appreciate the narrative underpinnings. Penn State clobbering Indiana would be very satisfying from a storytelling standpoint.
Were Indiana to somehow pull off the upset, we would witness a showcase in nihilism. There would be no vengeance, no redemption.
It would be like Candace from the acclaimed television series “Phineas and Ferb” rushing her mother home to witness the titular brothers’ shenanigans, only for said shenanigans to vanish at the last second. Alternatively, it would be like Doctor Doofenshmirtz crafting a perfect scheme to conquer the tri-state area, only for it to fall apart at the last moment.
Wow. I guess I never really picked up on all the Nietzscheism in that show when I was nine.
Regardless, it’s the sort of outcome that would leave neutral viewers feeling unfulfilled and irritated.
It would be pretty funny though, right?