The program needs to be better than that.
Hughes knows it. So do the rest of the Hoosiers. Comebacks that fall short are as painful as getting hammered.
Michigan State comes to Bloomington Saturday with its bruising defense and bruised ego (two losses, including at home to Ohio State), and IU doesn't need any more pain.
It needs a victory.
So what is the lesson learned from falling behind 27-0 at Northwestern, rallying to within eight, having a chance to forge a tie, and then losing 44-29 on Saturday?
What significance can be gleaned by trailing Ball State by 13 late in the fourth quarter, rallying for the lead, then losing on the final play?
Nothing that shouldn't have been learned or gleaned about 500 times in the last half century.
Win the darn game.
Make the game-deciding plays.
That's the bottom line.
“It shows great potential,” Hughes says about the rallies. “It's good we can come back against Northwestern, good we fought back against Ball State, but it's frustrating at the same time. Why can't we play like that the whole game and just separate ourselves? We're coming out too lackadaisical. We keep fighting from behind. We need to get going in the beginning.”
In previous games the Hoosiers would start well and bog down in the second half. On Saturday, they spent the first 30 minutes in an offensive deep freeze, then scored 29 points in the next 16 minutes.
What was up with that?
“It might have been play calling,” Hughes says. “Maybe we were a little too conservative and trying to chuck it around a little too much in the beginning. In the second half, we just let it go. We had nothing to lose. We wanted to take some shots down the field.”
The result — the Hoosiers went from 27 points down to just eight in the fourth quarter.
“What was going on where we couldn't do that the whole game?” Hughes says. “We've had problems in the past with the third quarter being our down quarter. This time the first half we didn't get anything going. We'll see what plays we called in the second half. Maybe we should have called them in the first half. Maybe it was just taking more shots and letting it go.”
Yes, as coach Kevin Wilson says, “Our guys didn't panic. They kept coming. We had a chance.” That's a step for a program that's in reboot mode as Wilson tries to build a winner. Still, nothing says progress better than a victory.
A significant victory.
A Big Ten victory. Wilson is 0-9 in the conference. IU has lost 21 of its last 22 Big Ten games.
That has to stop.
As for the bend-and-break defense, well, haven't we been here before? Aren't we always here? Yes, the Hoosiers had some key moments. They forced three turnovers. They had nine tackles for loss.
As usual, it wasn't enough, but now it comes with a national twist. IU doesn't have the only defense springing leaks. Baylor, Georgia, West Virginia, Purdue, Tennessee and more got torched on Saturday.
Still, you give up 704 total yards — the fourth most a defense has allowed in Big Ten history — along with 44 points and that's a big problem. The Hoosiers have allowed 85 points against real competition and not the two opening patsies in Indiana State and Massachusetts.
“It's frustrating because as a defense you'd like to think you can make the stops down the line to narrow the gap,” defensive tackle Adam Replogle says. “We didn't do that.”
“We were playing as hard as we could.”
Replogle did his part against Northwestern with nine tackles, including two for loss. He had one of IU's two hits on a Wildcat quarterback. He insists things will improve.
“We're not deflated. At the end of the day, it's just one game. We'll watch film, come together, carry it over to practice and get better.”
Now comes Michigan State, which has struggled offensively. The Spartans have scored 23 points or fewer in four of their five games. That would suggest vulnerability, but if you've seen Indiana play defense over the years, you might figure this means Michigan State is about to have a big day.
Yes, that is cynicism born from habitual losing football. It can change.
It needs to start Saturday.