BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (IU Athletics) — Indiana keeps cruising.
The first winning record in 12 years?
A multi-dimensional offense mixed with a takeaway defensive machine?
Could a national ranking follow?
With a 7-2 record following Saturday night's 34-3 nationally-televised win over Northwestern, the Hoosiers are making their move.
Will it be enough to crack a Top-25 poll?
Probably not this coming week, but with games against Top-5 Penn State and Top-15 Michigan up next, all things are possible.
For the record, last week IU earned four AP poll votes and 18 coaches' poll votes.
Last week 50 AP poll votes were needed to make the Top 25, 102 in the coaches' poll.
In the bigger picture, the Hoosiers have secured their first winning record since 2007. It was one of three major goals head coach Tom Allen set when he got the job in December of 2016. The others were winning an outright Big Ten title (last achieved in 1945) and winning a bowl game (that hasn't happened since 1991).
He was firm about those goals then. He's even firmer now that one is achieved, and a bowl victory could be come January.
Allen said he told coaches and players if they didn't believe in those goals, to leave.
"I want a coaching staff and a team that believes."
These guys believe.
"Everybody doubted us," true freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen said. "Everybody acted like we were the nieces in the Big Ten. We're showing everybody we don't just compete for games anymore. We're winning them. We want to win the games nobody thinks we can win."
The Hoosiers' fourth-straight victory (their best in conference play since winning 4 straight in 1993) came with this all-too-familiar scenario -- Michael Penix Jr. started at quarterback, got hurt and was replaced by Peyton Ramsey.
Allen said Penix "Got dinged up right before halftime," and that his status would be determined later.
Penix had a big first half -- 10-for-15, 162 yards passing -- but didn't play in IU's last first-half possession, or in the second half.
Ramsey came in just as he did against Maryland and Eastern Illinois. He finished 7-for-10 for 108 yards and a touchdown.
"Once again Peyton continues to be a great player," Allen said. "Both are huge parts of our program. It's great to have two."
Regardless of who plays quarterback, the offense under coordinator Kalen DeBoer continues shredding defenses. It has scored at least 30 points in eight of its nine games, including a program-record-tying six straight.
Northwestern (1-7, 0-6 Big Ten) came in allowing 24.4 points.
Indiana basically had that by halftime.
"It creates a lot of confidence," Allen said. "To know you have a chance to score 30 every game is pretty awesome. That becomes our expectation.
"It's a tribute to Kalen and his system. The players and coaches have bought in. He's been a game-changer for us. He's a huge part of our success."
It helps to have receivers such as Donavan Hale, who makes catches despite fierce defensive attention. His fourth-quarter, 32-yard, don't-even-think-about-breaking-this-up sideline beauty is destined for acclaim.
If teammate Whop Philyor doesn't beat him to it.
Hale finished with two catches for 41 yards. Philyor had two for 76.
Then there was tailback Stevie Scott III, who rushed for 116 yard and two touchdowns. It was his third 100-yard effort in the last four games. He added a 20-yard TD catch.
Finally, consider a defense that has held four opponents to three points or less. The last time that happened was in 1945, when IU did it to five teams.
The Hoosiers also recovered three fumbles.
It all reflects Allen's quest for program greatness.
"There's a purposeful approach with our coaching staff and players," he said. "It's unchartered territory for this program, but we've recruited a bunch of guys to do the very thing we're doing.
"When I talk to these guys, I challenge them about what's next and where they want to be and what we're trying to accomplish."
It took consecutive 5-7 records, and a tough loss at Michigan State at the end of September to get Indiana to this point.
"We didn't get discouraged," Allen said. "We didn't hang our heads. We went back to work. We kept recruiting. We kept developing and kept fighting."
That fight surfaced on the game's opening possession. IU began with a pair of false-start penalties. Two Penix passes got the Hoosiers out of that hole. Scott unleashed a be-more-man-than-the-Wildcats 7-yard run, then followed with a 27-yard juke and go run. It ended with Logan Justus' 27-yard field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
"We had those two stinking penalties and started first and 20 against a very good defense and didn't blink," Allen said. "We drove right down the field and got rolling."
It wasn't just the offense.
Northwestern broke a 22-yard run on its first play, but Mullen ripped the ball out and the Hoosiers recovered near midfield. Scott's 2-yard run made it 10-0 nine minutes into the first quarter.
At that point, IU had 117 total yards on 17 plays. Northwestern had 22 yards on one play.
After the Wildcats got a field goal to open the second quarter, the Hoosier defense went to work.
Linebacker Cam Jones forced a fumble and Mullen recovered inside the Northwestern 20-yard line. Penix ended that drive with a 1-yard TD run and a 17-3 Hoosier lead.
A second Scott TD run made it 24-3 at halftime.
There was one big first-half Hoosier negative -- Jones was ejected for targeting. He will be able to play in IU's next game, Nov. 16 at Penn State.
IU got a third-quarter touchdown when Ramsey burned Northwestern's blitz with a 20-yard scoring pass to Scott to make it 31-3.
Justus ended the scoring with a field goal, making him 12-for-12 for the season.
Only one Hoosier kicker has ever done better -- Austin Starr made 15-straight field goals in 2007.
Add it up and you have a team that, after years of near misses, has learned to finish.
"You've got to make critical plays in the last five minutes of the game," Allen said. "You've got to get the key stops, get the key execution of offense.
"You've got to get the big plays, make the tough catches, make the contested runs when they're loading the box.
"And it's depth. Our guys are more mature. It's our weight room, our strength staff. We're getting stronger. It's impressive. I've never been a part of a team that works this hard during the season in the weight room. That creates a ton of confidence."
And then victories.
"We're getting better every time we take the field," Allen said. "This was probably our most complete game. To get four Big Ten wins in a row is special.
"It's the fight they showed; the grit they showed."
Figure more is on its way.
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