(AP) — Indiana began the season trying to change its football image.
The Hoosiers headed home Saturday contemplating why that breakthrough victory never came. And now they’ll have a whole offseason to try to find a solution, part of the hard reality of falling one game short of becoming bowl eligible.
“I really wanted another month with the guys on this team,” senior quarterback Richard Lagow said after losing Saturday at Purdue . “That’s the biggest disappointment, the most disappointing part about it.”
Sure, there was plenty to lament in a season full of disappointments.
Indiana (5-7, 2-7 Big Ten) went 0-5 against ranked teams including another overtime loss to Michigan, couldn’t end its conference losing streak at Maryland, gave away the Old Oaken Bucket for the first time in five years and failed to make the postseason for the first time in three years.
But as tough as it is to hear those lines inside the locker room, coach Tom Allen knows how much progress his team made this season — and how much more improvement it could make next season.
The defense that fought its way back to respectability in 2016 made another giant step this year. Despite playing three top-five teams and one of the nation’s most challenging schedules, the Hoosiers finished the regular season ranked No. 26 in total defense (340.1 yards per game) and No. 54 in scoring defense (25.3 points).
Allen won more games than any full-time first-year coach at Indiana since Phil Dickens went 5-3 in 1958.
Still, Indiana needed to win its last three regular-season games for the first time since 1946 to keep playing.
“I expected us to be going to a bowl game this year,” Allen said. “Coming up one game short isn’t what I wanted. No question nobody played more top-ranked teams than we did, that’s a fact, but it’s part of it. You have to be able to find a way to win enough games to extend your season and we came up one short. That part really, really hurts, because I felt like this team deserved to be in that situation and we didn’t play well enough (against Purdue).”
The silver lining is that Indiana did find a foundation for the future.
Redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey wrested the starting quarterback job away from Lagow at midseason and gave it back only after injuring his knee during the 42-39 loss at Maryland in late October. Ramsey didn’t take another snap, though Allen acknowledged he was getting close to returning the last two games.
Morgan Ellison, a true freshman, and Cole Gest, a redshirt freshman, emerged as the Hoosiers’ new workhorse running backs. Ellison finished with 704 yards and six TDs to lead the team in both categories while Gest had 428 yards and one TD. Ramsey wound up No. 3 on Indiana’s rushing chart with 226 yards and two TDs.
Receiver Whop Philyor, another true freshman, showed he could be a dynamic player and Nick Westbrook, who led the Hoosiers in receiving in 2016, is expected to return next season after suffering a season-ending injury on the opening kickoff of the season opener.
Plus, nine of their top 10 offensive linemen will be back, too.
The only real question on offense is whether Simmie Cobbs Jr. will leave early for the NFL after finishing second in the Big Ten in receptions (72) and third in yards receiving (841). It will be hard to match those numbers if the Hoosiers go with a more run-heavy offense next season.
On defense, the Hoosiers must replace some stalwarts — linebacker Tegray Scales, cornerback Rashard Fant and safety Chase Dutra.
But Allen seems to have some of their replacements in place, making for a potentially stronger team in 2018.
“Although we did not win a B1G (Big Ten) or a national championship, we got to the first bowl game in eight years, then made it back-to-back bowl games the next year, all while beating Purdue four times in a row, and being able to improve the defense to one of the best IU has seen in years,” Fant wrote in a letter posted Monday on the athletic department website. “I think that could definitely be considered helping to turn a program around and working toward holding each other and the program to a higher standard.”