The Indiana Hoosiers took some big steps in rebranding their football program last season.
Now they're looking to build on the momentum.
After posting its first eight-win season and first winning league record since 1993, Indiana starts this season chasing a rare upset of No. 8 Penn State in the season opener.
“Beating those top 25 teams is something we haven’t been able to do a lot in the past, so that’s one of the team goals we came up with this year," Hoosiers coach Tom Allen said. “When we talk about what’s next for the program, it’s winning these kinds of games. We’ve been in them, we’ve been close, we have to finish them.”
Penn State provides a prime example of previous close calls they failed to close out.
While Indiana has lost 22 of 23 games in the series — including six straight — the last two were competitive, one-possession games.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin and others around the league have watched the Hoosiers' steady progression. Franklin, for one, believes a cadre of offensive playmakers coupled with an experienced defense could put Indiana on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“I think it's the best Indiana football team they've had in my six years in the conference," Franklin said. “I think they've done a really good job of building it. The last couple years have been very, very competitive guys and we've been fortunate to get out of there with a win."
Indiana's last top-10 win was a 31-10 victory at No. 9 Ohio State on Oct. 10, 1987. Are the Hoosiers overdue? Sure.
But first they must figure out how to clear the next hurdle.
“When we take care of things the right way, when we pay attention to detail and I think special teams has been a big factor, we can win these games," Allen said. “We have to be able to elevate this program and to do that, we have to win these games.”
Indiana linebacker Cam Jones didn't need to watch the game tape to remember what happened last year at Penn State. The bitter memories lingered through the entire, abnormally long offseason.
An early fourth-quarter touchdown got Indiana within 27-24 and then Penn State regained control with a 9-minute drive, capped by the game-sealing, 1-yard touchdown run from quarterback Sean Clifford.
“I remember every second of that drive," Jones said after being elected one of five captains. “All we needed was one play. We've carried that with us every single day and we know we’ve got to be locked in every single play."
Penn State running back Journey Brown is out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition.
Brown was Penn State's top rusher last season with 890 yards and briefly considered opting out of this season when the Big Ten initially announced its season postponement. Eventually, Brown decided to return. Now he appears to be out again though he released a video message this week saying he still hopes to play this season.
Without Brown, expect Noah Cain and Devyn Ford to take on heavier workloads.
Marcelino Ball, one of the Hoosiers' top defenders, tore an anterior cruciate ligament during a late September practice and is scheduled to have surgery Friday. He plans to attend this weekend's game.
Ball, another captain, said he used the offseason to deal with his anxiety by finding mental ways to relax. And now, feeling refreshed, Ball simply wants to help his teammates.
“Before this year started, I already had it in my mind that I'm going to help these guys compete and win and I was going to be more of a resource for them," he said. “I can communicate with my teammates, in some ways, better than the coaches can communicate with them. So while I’d rather be out there I’m going to do everything I can to be a resource for them."
Penn State’s 134th season begins with its latest season opener in more than half a century.
The Nittany Lions haven’t played an October opener since 1948 when they defeated Bucknell 35-0. They finished that season 7-1-1 and ranked No. 18 in the final poll with the lone loss a 7-0 game at Pittsburgh.
It’s also the school’s latest opener in a calendar year since the influenza pandemic of 1918. Penn State opened that season with a 6-6 tie against Wissahickon Barracks on Nov. 2. The Nittany Lions went 1-2-1 that season.
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