In July, coach Tom Allen laid out three areas in which he wanted Indiana to leap forward.
He wanted his team to break through spiritually, for his players to “find their purpose and live it with relentless passion.” He also wanted them to break through mentally.
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“I believe with conviction that before there is a reality, there is a mentality,” Allen said. “If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else? Our minds are very, very powerful.”
Third, and perhaps most important, Allen said he wanted Indiana to break through physically.
A comprehensive offseason analysis led Allen to the conclusion that to improve the team’s ability to finish games, the Hoosiers needed to make a few changes. That led to the hiring of David Ballou as the program’s director of athletic performance and Dr. Matt Rhea as an athletic performance coach in charge of speed development.
“We’ve played with unbelievable toughness, we’ve competed for 60 minutes, now it’s time to finish,” said Allen, now in his second full season as Indiana coach after Kevin Wilson’s resignation in late 2016.
If the Hoosiers hope to improve on their ability to finish games, they need not look further than their performance against No. 3 Ohio State, their opponent Saturday. On opening night last season, Indiana led 14-13 at halftime before being outscored 36-7. In 2015, the Hoosiers led the Buckeyes 10-6 at halftime before losing 34-27.
Allen called this iteration of the Buckeyes the most talented he has faced. An Ohio State team that has outscored opponents 245-94 hardly allowed opponents such as Rutgers, Oregon State and Tulane to start, and Penn State certainly didn’t finish Saturday, allowing two touchdowns in the final eight minutes.
Indiana, which opened the week as a 27½-point underdog and has not been ranked since September 1994, hopes for a better fate.
“Tremendous challenge and opportunity wrapped up into one,” Allen said this week.
The Hoosiers have just their fourth 4-1 record in the past 20 years, albeit against weaker competition. They have the nation’s 14th-rated pass defense at 163.6 passing yards allowed per game and are tied for 13th with 10 forced turnovers despite replacing seven starters on defense. Ending a streak of 37 consecutive losses to top-10 opponents requires a talented, disciplined roster as well as confidence. So far, the Hoosiers have the latter.
“I think it starts with the mindset and changing the culture. Seeing what we’ve done against certain teams, I feel like that builds confidence,” said senior safety Jonathan Crawford, a four-year starter. “It’s looking back on games and just knowing that we can actually play with certain guys and do certain things.
“It’s just playing within our scheme. Nobody’s trying to do something they can’t. I feel like that’s really been the main key for us.”
Indiana ranks just fifth in the Big Ten in total offense and eighth in points per game but is led by an experienced offensive line.
“It helps that we have a full coaching staff that’s very confident in pretty much all of our abilities,” said redshirt junior center Hunter Littlejohn, an Olentangy Liberty graduate. “That makes us excited to come to work every day and I think just building on that experience that we’ve had has only made our success grow more and more.”
Confidence and a manageable early schedule have led to Indiana’s best start since 2015. Now the Hoosiers just need to finish.