The past four seasons of Indiana football have proceeded with at least one strand of striking continuity.
Every year since 2015, the Hoosiers have entered the final week of the season with a 5-6 record, squaring off with Purdue for bowl eligibility (and the Old Oaken Bucket) four times. The first two seasons, they won. The past two Novembers, they’ve lost.
That’s life as a program trying to forge an identity under third-year head coach Tom Allen while languishing far behind Big Ten East powers like Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan.
This year, though, IU has a chance to punch its postseason ticket early, entering Saturday’s game against Nebraska at a 5-2 mark and an offense that’s humming along and ranks third in the conference with 6.3 yards per snap.
It is also a critical juncture for the host Huskers in terms of bowl eligibility — and, thus, an important mile marker in Nebraska’s season — but for a slightly different reason. Scott Frost’s program (4-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten) needs two more wins to reach bowl eligibility. Should the Huskers qualify, it will be for the first time since the 2016 season, which is also the last time Indiana claimed six wins on a schedule.
Description: Head football coach Scott Frost talks about quarterbacks and running backs on Oct. 24, 2019.
“Oh, it’s really important,” senior walk-on running back Wyatt Mazour told reporters this week. “We’ve missed the last two years. … Right now, we’re trying to get in (a) winning culture. Bowl games honestly are really fun and special. The biggest deal is Nebraska getting back to that winning culture, where we don’t expect not to be in a bowl game and we don’t expect not to be in a big bowl game.”
Before the season, Nebraska was a trendy pick to win the Big Ten West. That’s still not completely out of reach. The Huskers essentially have to win out — no team has made the Big Ten Championship Game in the current divisional setup with more than two league losses — and hope unbeaten Minnesota’s rugged remaining schedule pulls the Gophers back to the pack.
That sort of hopefulness and acknowledging the importance of bowl qualification don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If the Huskers win their next two — IU and then a road trip to Purdue — they’ll hit the six-win benchmark and can reset the sights.
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NU athletic director Bill Moos raised some eyebrows at Big Ten football media days in Chicago in July when he said six wins should be the Huskers’ primary goal for the fall — and then doubled down when reporters circled back to make sure he meant the words the way he said them.
The theory — that bowl game preparation and the additional practices associated with it are like gold for a program — is a common one.
“Oh, it’s critical. I think the biggest thing when you’re talking about a young football team is you get more time, you get more practices,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said. “That’s huge when you get extra practices. You have a bunch of redshirt guys who maybe didn’t get a ton of reps during the season — they get reps during bowl preparation.
Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel preview Nebraska’s game against Wisconsin and take questions.
“And it’s just more time with each other as opposed to being home. Instead of chilling out over December, you’re working with each other, and I think that’s just huge for a young football team.”
“We've got to get to six wins,” athletic director Bill Moos said Thursday night on his monthly Husker Sports radio appearance. ... “It’s basically a whole ’nother spring football when you can get those extra days on the practice field, so we’ve really got to hope we can get into that position and then get the ball rolling from there and then increase the wins year by year.”
It’s not going to be a walk in the park, either. Metrics and projections only count for so much, but it’s a handy way to handicap Nebraska’s challenge. ESPN’s Football Power Index, as of Friday, doesn't give the Huskers more than a 40% chance against an opponent after Indiana leaves town: 47.7% vs. the Hoosiers on Saturday, 39.7% at Purdue on Nov. 2, 12.4% vs. Wisconsin on Nov. 16, 35.8% at Maryland on Nov. 23 and 25.6% vs. Iowa on Nov. 29.
A win Saturday against Indiana would mean half the remaining distance to an intermediate goal is covered. Then, the Huskers would be tasked with either finding road win No. 2 of the Frost era or beating the Hawkeyes or Badgers, against whom NU is a combined 1-10 since 2013 and 4-12 since entering the Big Ten.
That, though, is the challenge. And it’s one Mazour thinks his team is up for.
“That’s what we’re really trying to install in the culture is, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to miss a bowl game,’” he said.
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