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What If: Fortune Smiled On Indiana Football

Indiana Football lives on the back of “What Ifs.” What things might look like if a few games had gone differently.

NCAA Football: Gator Bowl-Indiana vs Tennessee Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

OTE continues “What If” Week with a team that has generated an average of 1.2 What Ifs per season played since 2009. Buckle in, nerds, we’re talking Indiana Football games decided by a touchdown or less, and oh boy, is there A LIST of those games I could talk about. To ease my own recollection (and in an attempt to keep this article under 2000 words which ultimately fails), I’m only going to “What If” games that occurred since I was a freshman at IU; hence, What Ifs since 2009.

September 26, 2009: Indiana at #23 Michigan, L 36-33.

The key play of this game was an interception by Michigan’s Donovan Warren that could very easily have been ruled a simultaneous possession catch by Indiana’s Damarlo Belcher. That call ended Indiana’s last drive, and by extension the game, coming with just over 2 minutes left. The Hoosiers still had 2 timeouts, and had been able to move the ball well enough on the Wolverines that a game-tying or game-winning drive wasn’t out of the question.

What Could Have Been: Assuming Indiana does in fact get the dual possession call, and does in fact go on to score the winning points, either in regulation or overtime? Not much, just their first win over Michigan since 1987, their first win over Michigan in Ann Arbor since 1967, and their first 4-0 start to a season in 19 years.

What Was Instead:

Yes, I would deprive you of this moment a billion times if it meant we’d won the damn game instead.

October 3, 2010: #19 Michigan at Indiana, L 42-35.

A sold-out Memorial Stadium. A ranked Michigan squad led by Denard Robinson (remember him?). A game neither team trailed by more than 7 points in. And the play that always haunts me when I think about this game: a 42 yard pass from Denard to Junior Hemingway that turned a decently long potential field goal attempt into an easy 4 yard rushing touchdown for Denard the play after. Unlike the game the year before, there was no question about the catch. Indiana also had chances earlier in the game to put points on the board, but multiple drives ended in turnovers on downs in Michigan territory. On the list of Indiana What Ifs, this one is much lower in priority, but hurts me more personally (I was at this game, and the place deflated after this catch).

What Could Have Been: A win against Michigan, which has some of the same weight as the 2009 entry. However, this entry has much more interesting end of season implications, given that this would have been Indiana’s 6th win in 2010. In theory, they could have been bowl eligible, which is a wild thing to think about a team that would go on to the infamous 83-20 game against Wisconsin later in the year, and bid adieu to Bill Lynch following an overtime win in the Old Oaken Bucket game. In that reality (because let’s be honest, 83-20 probably doesn’t change regardless of how this game turns out), does Indiana get a bowl bid at 6-6 with that mark of shame still on their record? Does Bill Lynch get another year at the helm if the Hoosiers do go bowling? If Indiana doesn’t need to hire Kevin Wilson, where does he go for 2011, if anywhere?

What Was Instead: Yet Another “Man, You Guys Looked Really Good in Losing” Game. There will be more of those, just wait.

September 15, 2012: Ball State at Indiana, L 41-39.

This is going to be the odd entry out, in that it’s the only one not against a major conference opponent. Yet again, the reason it is here is because I was there, and Willie Snead was absolutely out of bounds and I will never be convinced otherwise. Not all What Ifs are that difficult.

What Could Have Been: Indiana doesn’t lose to Ball State at home on a last second field goal. Not sure what else needs to be said here.

What Was Instead: This article over at Hustle Belt exists. Go ahead, read it, laugh, and then come back. I’ll wait.

We good? Cool, on to both a more and less depressing loss. How does that happen, you ask? Well...

October 13, 2012: #8 Ohio State at Indiana, L 52-49.

If ever there was an Indiana game that I attended where the Hoosiers winning would have been a monumental upset, this was it. IU trailed by 18 in the 4th quarter on two separate occasions, including the 6:47 mark. Indiana’s last 15 points came in a 35 second span between 1:40 and 1:05 to go. The Hoosiers recovered one onside kick, and were one good bounce away from recovering a second one with time and yardage on their side. Before the last touchdown drive, you could have counted the remaining IU student section on both your hands and maybe requiring toes. Maybe. It was the band, the team, us, and a bunch of Ohio State fans. It was glorious, it was utterly unexpected, and it was still a gut punch when they kneeled out the game.

What Could Have Been: Kevin Wilson’s 4th win as a head football coach could have been a program defining, signature win off a top tier college football program, ending a massive streak of futility against them and staging an incredible comeback which would have caused the most depressing looking field storm ever, but by god it would have happened and been amazing to be a part of.

What Was Instead: Kevin Wilson’s 4th win as a head football coach came at Illinois two weeks later. Not bad, mind you, but not even close to the same kind of win.

November 2, 2013: Minnesota at Indiana, L 42-39.

With three minutes left in the game, Indiana drives from their own 31 to the Minnesota 9 yard line. 25 seconds remain. It’s second and goal. The Hoosiers have already come back from down 35-13 to briefly lead 39-35 before falling back once more. Lined up in the shotgun, Nate Sudfeld takes the snap as Tevin Coleman moves out to the right. To “borrow” from another SBNation property, welcome to a moment in time.

The ball is just over Tevin’s head, which would normally not be a problem, except that he has also gone behind Sudfeld in his motion out, meaning that what could have been a normal incomplete pass is instead now a fumbled lateral that turns what should have been at worst overtime football into Yet Another “Only Indiana” Loss.

What Could Have Been: A 6th win that would have sent Indiana bowling two years earlier. Actually taking advantage of having an 8 game home schedule by going undefeated in conference in Bloomington. Maybe cause Minnesota to not go lose the Texas Bowl to Syracuse?

What Was Instead: Another 5-7 season that sort of counted as progress, only to watch 2014 get thrown in a dumpster due to injuries. Is it unreasonable to say this loss stunted the Hoosiers for two years? Probably, but I’m saying it anyway.

October 3, 2015: #1 Ohio State at Indiana, L 34-27.

9 yards. That’s what separated Indiana from having a chance to upset the #1 team in the country at home on national TV. That they came so close is a testament to how the team responded to losing their leading rusher and top quarterback to ankle injuries in the middle quarters of the game. That Zander Diamont recorded a longer rushing touchdown than any of Ezekiel Elliott’s three scores to bring the game back to one score is a moment that would have led highlight reels of this game had the scoreline been reversed. 27 feet from greatness. And yet.

What Could Have Been: A field full of red after the student section descends on the turf to celebrate probably the biggest win in the history of Indiana football. The non-zero possibility that 5-0 Indiana would have been a ranked football team in 2015. Almost certainly the lead story on SportsCenter that night.

What Was Instead: “Every year, Indiana and Ohio State play football for 60 minutes, and at the end of the game, the Buckeyes go home with the win.”

October 17, 2015: Rutgers at Indiana, L 55-52.

Indiana led this game 52-27 with 20 minutes left. This was the 2015 Homecoming game. The amount of things that went wrong for this game to end this way is mind-boggling.


What Was Instead: Starting 0-2 against Rutgers since their entrance into the B1G.

November 14, 2015: #14 Michigan at Indiana, L 48-41 (2OT).

Indiana’s defense needed one stop. Pick any one of at least three different Michigan touchdown drives, give IU one more stop, and this game ends in Hoosier victory. The last full drive of regulation? Sure. Michigan’s first OT drive? Definitely. The game winning touchdown drive? Obviously. Some of those plays would have been easier to make than others, but any one of them going differently would have been enough. But hey, if losing in double OT to Michigan on Senior Night isn’t Indiana football enough for you, you’ll love what’s next.

What Could Have Been: Indiana playing the last two weeks of the season with an actual margin for error on making a bowl game. Indiana winning a prime time home game against a respectable opponent. Indiana sending out the senior class with a home victory to remember for years to come. Indiana putting a look of utter disbelief on Jim Harbaugh’s face.

What Was Instead: More missed opportunities. You know, the usual.

December 26, 2015: Indiana vs. Duke, L 44-41 (OT).

The Pinstripe Bowl. Yankee Stadium. New York, New York. Bright lights, big city. The Hoosiers’ first bowl since 2007. A touchdown scored by Alex Rodriguez (no, not that one). And what has gone down in Indiana lore as “The Kick.”

If you somehow haven’t seen or heard the ending of this one, here you go:

For reasons known only to whoever makes the college football rulebook, this play was not reviewable. Not even “we looked at it, and didn’t find enough evidence to overturn the call on the field of no good”, simply “The play is not reviewable.” The only “benefit” of this call going Duke’s way is that the Blue Devils won their first bowl game in 54 years, a streak that Indiana still has around 20 years to play before worrying about matching it.

What Could Have Been: The Kick Was Good.

What Was Instead: The Kick Was No Good{{Disputed}}.

September 24, 2016: Wake Forest at Indiana, L 33-28.

A school record 496 passing yards. Normally, a number that you don’t see on the losing side of the scoreboard. Unless, of course, you’re Richard Lagow, and you’ve also thrown 5 interceptions to Wake Forest. Somehow, the Hoosiers found time to force 9 punts in this game, but it wasn’t enough to overcome 5 picks and also a blocked field goal.

What Could Have Been: A celebratory mood for setting a school record in a win.

What Was Instead: Shell shock.

December 28, 2016: Indiana vs. Utah, L 26-24.

The Foster Farms Bowl marked the beginning of the Tom Allen era at Indiana, having just ascended to the head coaching job following Kevin Wilson’s necessary departure. The Hoosiers started strong early, faded to a halftime tie, and led late in the fourth quarter before surrendering the game winning field goal. Poor play from Richard Lagow, and an (at the time) uncharacteristic missed field goal from Griffin Oakes doomed Indiana in their second straight bowl game.

What Could Have Been: A victorious debut for Tom Allen would have built some positive momentum for his tenure, and ended IU’s bowl winless streak at a nice 25 years (give or take).

What Was Instead: Another day, another L.

October 14, 2017: #14 Michigan at Indiana, L 27-20 (OT).

The Hoosiers waged a hard fought battle to get the game to overtime. On the very first play of overtime, Karan Higdon ran 25 yards, and Indiana failed to match the last score. As often seems to happen against the Wolverines, one extra play of defense would have made a huge difference, and as often seems to happen, that play was not made by Indiana.

What Could Have Been: It’s an Indiana game against one of the Big Two. You understand the stakes by now.

What Was Instead: It’s an Indiana game against one of the Big Two. You understand the expected result by now.

January 2, 2020: Indiana vs. Tennessee, L 23-22.

The final What If is the most obvious, as it’s also the last game Indiana played. 10:27 left in the 4th quarter, Indiana up by two touchdowns, looking in very good shape to win the Gator Bowl and finally breakthrough a solid couple decades of futility. Instead, Tennessee pulled the comeback that very often eludes the Hoosiers in similar scenarios, and yet again Indiana fell short in a bowl game due to special teams errors.

What Could Have Been: #9Windiana, the dearly departed, much lamented meme, was that close to reality.

What Was Instead: Just the next What If up for the never-ending What If machine.