BLOOMINGTON -- Stephen Houston gets it. Now, he might not always practice or pass protect like he does, but at least on the intellectual level, Indiana's junior tailback and leading rusher understands the big picture.
Beating Illinois was big. It snapped an 11-game Big Ten losing streak, gave Kevin Wilson his first Big Ten victory as a head coach and was the Saturday reward for all the blood, sweat and tears.
Do it again
“It feels good,” Houston says, “but we're still hungry for more. We can be better at things. We have a great opportunity and we put ourselves in a great position.”
What is that position? IU is 3-5 and if it wins at least three of its final four games, it becomes bowl eligible. Yes, every year the Hoosiers say that in October, and then November disaster strikes (IU is 1-13 in November in the last four years) and the semester break is spent wondering about what might have been.
But with an Illinois victory that followed three knocking-at-the-door losses, you wonder if Indiana's losing tradition is about to end -- right now and not some forever unattainable future, like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series again.
“We have a lot of doubters,” Houston says. “We're not worried about them. We're just worried about our inner circle.”
Outer circle cynics will say Indiana beat stumbling, bumbling Illinois, which might be the worst team in a bad Big Ten, although under-achieving Purdue challenges for that status.
But that misses the point. You have to start somewhere. The Hoosiers' first two wins against Indiana State and Massachusetts are irrelevant because those were, and no reason to sugar coat this, patsies. The Hoosiers had to prove they could beat a BCS conference-caliber team.
Now, at last, they have done so.
That's a significant step, but not the last one. It's all about where do they go from here.
IU finishes with Iowa (4-4), Wisconsin (6-3), Penn State (5-3) and Purdue (3-5). None of these teams rates with, say, top-ranked Alabama, where the Hoosiers would need Divine intervention to win. They could sweep them all, or lose them all. The margin for victory is small, but it is there.
“We have to have the mindset we can do it,” Houston says. “See the things we missed (against Illinois) and build on them along with this win.”
Consider quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who just might have won the starting position for the rest of the season after going 10-for-15 for 107 yards, two touchdowns and, most important, no interceptions against Illinois. He's still a teenager, a California kid who doesn't know anything about IU's losing tradtion, and doesn't care.
“We're not surprised by this,” he says of the Illinois win. “We expect this out of ourselves. We feel we can do this every week.
“The momentum is good. We have to build off of it. It will make practice that much more fun, meetings that much more fun.
“We'll be ready to take it to Iowa next week. We'll prepare as hard as we can.”
If this sounds like something Wilson would say, well, guess what, it is. He's pushed that theme since he arrived two years ago after a successful offensive coordinator run at Oklahoma.
“We're doing a lot of things right, and it's nice to get a Saturday scoreboard to go our way, and we want a lot more of those…
“Our team knows it can win, and believes it can win. Our guys handled themselves like a winning team, and while our record doesn't speak that yet, we're working hard and trying to move it in the right direction.”
That's personified by junior safety Greg Heban, who in the last few weeks has emerged as one of the Big Ten's better players, on defense and on special teams.
“This is really special, not only to win, but to win on the road. We feel this will snowball into the next game and the rest of the year.
“Iowa is a good team. They'll come into our house ready, so we have to respond to whatever they have.”
Heban gets it, you see, just like Houston, just like, more and more, all the Hoosiers.
Maybe Wilson is right. Maybe this Indiana program, really is, finally is, changed.