It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Actually, it was 2015 Indiana Football, which pretty well hit both of those times over the course of the season. For as many times as it looked like it was just Indiana football as usual (read: pretty awful), the team put up some pretty tough fights against the heavyweights of the conference, and came inches away from derailing so many promising seasons.
When the season opened, it looked like Indiana had somehow gotten worse than the crew that had ended 2014 on a massive losing streak, only to be buffered by an escape from Purdue. Good teams, it was thought, do not need to beat FCS schools by breaking up a 2 point conversion to survive at home. Good teams, it was thought, do not let Florida International hang close until late pick sixes put the game out of reach. Good teams, in fact, grind out 6 minute long drives at the end of games to ensure their opponents cannot come back. Good teams, in fact, win games on the road against other Power 5 schools.
And thus did Indiana find itself starting 4-0 for the first time since 1990, with the reigning, defending national champions from Ohio State coming into Memorial Stadium. Where, for fully one half of the game, the Hoosiers shut down Ohio State. The teams traded punches into the third quarter until Indiana, who had already lost Jordan Howard to injury, saw Nate Sudfeld depart as well. The Buckeyes began putting up points in bunches, and after Ezekiel Elliott broke free for his third and longest touchdown run of the day, it looked as though the plucky Hoosiers' upset hopes were completely dashed.
And then, there was Zander:
Suddenly, with ten minutes to go in the game, Indiana had seized back momentum. The Hoosiers forced a three and out, gave it right back on the same, and forced one more to take over at their own 43 yard line with just under 4 minutes left, playing a backup quarterback and running back against the top team in the country.
They made it down to the Buckeye 5 yard line before a false start pushed them back. Two plays laters, and Indiana faced 4th and goal from the 9. Coach Kevin Wilson suggested after the game that as this drive progressed, the thought that Indiana would go for the win after a tying touchdown was heavily discussed by the coaching staff.
They came that close, on a hurried pass after a bad snap. Once again, the long-hoped for win, the long-hoped for upset, got away.
Still missing two very important pieces of their offense, Indiana looked very lackluster against Penn State, and by the time Danny Cameron had to come in as the backup QB for the now also injured Zander Diamont, the outcome was in no way in doubt.
Nate Sudfeld returned against Rutgers, but sometime between the beginning of the third quarter and the end of the game, Indiana decided to completely forget why people play the game of football and gave up 28 unanswered points to the Scarlet Knights to lose 55-52. The best thing that can be said about this game is that I do not have to think about Rutgers football for many more months, and even that may not be enough time to recover from this.
The following week, Indiana had a possession literally wiped out by a passing monsoon in East Lansing. They would recover from that utter waste in time, but after scoring a touchdown midway through the 3rd quarter, the wheels fell off, starting with Griffin Oakes missing his second PAT of the game. The closest Indiana would come to scoring again was a missed field goal, and three Spartan touchdowns in the final 5 minutes blew what had been a close game until that point wide open.
Undefeated Iowa came to Bloomington after that, and while Indiana was against able to hang close, the Hawkeyes came out victorious. The next week, Michigan came to town, and when it counted, Indiana's defense just could not make a stop, leading to an overtime loss, the sixth straight loss following the 4-0 start, and the last bit of wiggle room in the Hoosiers' perpetual quest to play 13 had just disappeared.
So after all of that, you could be forgiven if you turned off IU-Maryland in the first quarter once the Terrapins took a 21-3 lead. If you did, you only missed one more Terrapin touchdown. You also missed Indiana pile 44 more points onto the board, keeping Indiana alive at 5-6 with just the annual Old Oaken Bucket game left to play.
In the history of IU-Purdue, Indiana had only won three straight against the Boilers five times, with the last of those being a four win streak ending in 1947. Many an attempt at the Hoosiers earning a postseason appearance had been put down by otherwise unimpressive Purdue squads. So, despite facing a 2-9 team that was still somewhat uncertain on the future status of their head coach, no one took this game for granted, especially with it being in West Lafayette. And until Andre Booker went 72 yards to score with ten minutes left in the 4th, the fear that the Hoosiers would somehow throw away yet another chance was very real. Thankfully, that nightmare never came to pass, IU won 54-36, and would claim their 3rd straight Bucket win and their first bowl appearance since the 2007 Insight Bowl.
And on the day after Christmas, the Hoosiers took on Duke in Yankee Stadium in the Pinstripe Bowl. Yet again, Indiana delivered an exciting game, and yet again, the wrong team walked out with the victory. Controversy reigned when Indiana's field goal attempt to try and force a second overtime appeared to pass directly over the goalpost and was called no good with no possible chance of replay review. While it provided a disappointing end for the year, the fact that Indiana did so many of the things that have proven impossible in the past this year suggests that there might yet come a day when making a bowl is the expected season finale, rather than a nice surprise.