It’s 7:30 a.m. Sunday in Bloomington.
It will be hours before the nascent sunrise coaxes the quiet town’s denizens awake. For now, every home and car slumbers silently beneath a blanket of late September humidity.
In front of one such abode, mostly empty cans of Natural Light litter a patchy lawn. In the window, a faded “Saturdays are for the boys” flag hangs limply in the stagnant morning air.
It’s a scene all too familiar to the students of Indiana. When they finally roll over in bed and blink the sleep from their tired eyes, they will check their phones in the hopes that yesterday’s events were a bad dream. Alas, it isn’t so. The Hoosiers lost yet another high-profile matchup rife with mistakes and unforced errors.
The thought of nearly toppling the No. 8 University of Cincinnati should be a pleasant one to fans of a program with as little historical prestige as Indiana football. Maybe it still is. But the sting of defeat lingers all the same.
Why is that, exactly?
Obviously, no one wants to see their team lose. Through three weeks of play, 1-2 isn’t the record you hope for. What confuses me is why a 38-24 loss feels as deflating as an overtime heartbreaker or a complete blowout.
Perhaps it was the heat. You couldn’t quite fry an egg on the sidewalk Saturday, but given the humidity you could probably poach one if you held it between your hands long enough. I couldn’t blame the legions of Indiana faithfuls for being a bit drained after cooking in the Instant Pot that was Memorial Stadium for four hours.
I suspect the real gut punch comes in the form of a feeling of smallness.
Last season, the Hoosiers charmed the college football world and earned a spot on the national stage. I’m pretty sure anyone old enough to remember the last time Indiana ranked in the top 10 is simultaneously too old to remember the last time Indiana was ranked in the top 10.
Now fans are saying the Hoosiers are bad again. That’s not actually true at all, but it might as well be in a sport that latches onto the best of the very best and dismisses everything below the uppermost crust.
Indiana isn’t without flaws. The offense that shredded elite defenses in 2020 has often looked impotent against its tougher opponents in 2021. Junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr., whether or not he is fully recovered from the ACL tear he sustained in November, hasn’t quite returned to the version of himself that launched receiver-seeking missiles at will last season.
That being said, it’s not like the Hoosiers are in a hopeless situation.
No team has managed to look particularly impressive against Indiana’s defense. If its offense hadn’t given the ball away seven times, Indiana’s defense would have allowed 40% fewer points, and the Hoosiers might be 2-1.
Much like a tasteful yet inexpensive IKEA daybed, Indiana has all the pieces to be fantastic. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how exactly those pieces fit together and I somehow have more allen wrenches than screws or sockets.
Will Penix and his receivers find their groove? Will the offensive line become dominant enough to justify running the ball up the middle every other play?
Furthermore, even if both of these areas improve, how much will it show?
With a game at No. 6 Penn State on Oct. 2, Indiana very well may play three top-10 squads in its first five outings. I certainly don’t think the Hoosiers are the 11th-best team in the nation, but even if they were, their record wouldn’t be any better than if they were the 11th worst.
That’s a particularly hard pill to swallow. For a long time, all Hoosier football fans have wanted is to feel their school belonged at the top.
We’re still in the dark when it comes to guessing the peak of Indiana’s potential in 2021. Nevertheless, there’s no denying the Hoosiers have looked extremely vulnerable in two contests against legitimately great teams.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t see anything in a room. If you slam your head into something really hard and flat above you over and over, you at least get a pretty good idea of where your ceiling is.