BLOOMINGTON -- Football is a brutal game. Can you handle that? Specifically, can the Indiana Hoosiers handle that?
They did for their first nine games, then submitted against Wisconsin in last Saturday's home finale for the (dark) ages.
Now comes Saturday's trip to Penn State, a program IU has never beaten. The Hoosiers (4-6) must win to keep hopes of bowl eligibility. The postseason-banned Nittany Lions (4-6) must win for pride.
Something will give and for Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, it's simple.
“We've got to compete. I tell our guys every day, when we go on the field, don't worry about the score. I don't care if you're down 14 or up 14, you've got to compete. That means being a physical team. It means hitting people It means not shying down to anything.
“At times we've done a good job with that. At other times, we haven't. At the end of the game, if you compete hard and do your job for four quarters, look at the scoreboard. More times than not, good things will happen.”
They did not happen in the 62-14 loss to Wisconsin, and through embarrassment comes resolve. Co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler, refreshingly passionate and quotable, took the blame for the defensive collapse, calling it unacceptable and saying that if the Hoosiers ever play that poorly again, he'll put his house up for sale, suggesting he'd either quit or be fired.
Tight end Ted Bolser insisted the future is bright.
“We can be one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. The defense struggled in the last game, but in the previous games they held their own. If we just come out firing in all calibers and know what we're doing, who knows what we can do?”
Coach Kevin Wilson pushes a let's-move-on theme.
“We asked our guys, are we strong enough to continue to be what we want to be and go back and keep building? We didn't point a bunch of fingers.
“I would love to see these men come back and respond to what our standard is. They have set the standard. We set it, but they embrace it. I'd love to see these guys come back. If we're building our program, this is a good week to see what we've got.
“I'm looking forward to seeing it. It's going to be a tough challenge. It's a good team we're facing. It's a good place to go play. They're going to be in our division every year and we're going to play them every year and every other year we're going over there. We have to keep pushing, so we'll see what we've got."
Penn State bounced back from its 0-2 start with five straight victories. But losses to Ohio State and Nebraska in recent weeks have jolted that momentum.
Then quarterback Matt McGloin touched a conspiracy note when commenting on a controversial call near the end of the Nebraska game. Officials ruled a fumble on what appeared to be a Penn State go-ahead touchdown.
“We're not going to get that call ever, against any team,” McGloin said. “It doesn't matter who the referees are.” When asked to elaborate, McGloin said, “Why do you think it is? Write what you think.”
While unstated, it seemed McGloin was implying the call was the result of the sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Coach Bill O'Brien then made McClain made unavailable to the media this week.
That will have no bearing on Saturday's game. Penn State's talent and experience will, Bolser said.
“They're big, strong guys. They started a little slow, but they have really picked it up. They're a lot better than they were in the beginning of the season. We have to play our 'A' game to beat them.”
McGloin paces the Big Ten's second-best passing attack, trailing only Indiana. The Nittany Lions average 268.8 yards passing a game (IU is at 293.2). McGloin is the conference's top passer with 2,676 yards, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions. Receiver Allen Robinson leads the conference in receptions (63), yards (786) and touchdowns (eight).
The Nittany Lions defense rates with the Big Ten's best, allowing just 18.6 points. And while NCAA sanctions, the scandal and overall struggles continue to hinder Penn State, Wilson sees plenty to concern him.
“If you're going to play in the Big Ten, you've got to learn to win in challenging road environments with big crowds that are loud in big stadiums,” he said. “That's the beauty of playing in the Big Ten. If our guys didn't want to do that they should have taken a smaller offer and went somewhere else.”
As for IU's 0-15 record against Penn State, Wilson sees it as an opportunity.
“Let's embrace the challenge,” he said. “It's more about the challenge of just playing a great opponent that you're going to play every year than really talking about the history. It's really nice though that you can do something that hasn't been done, but at the same time it's about preparation, executing, and for us, it's about a positive response that came out of a poor performance. How do we come back?"