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Big test for Spartans: Tom Allen turning hoops-mad Indiana into football force

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Three weeks into the season, most folks expected to see Ohio State unbeaten, sitting at the top of the standings in the Big Ten East.

No surprise there as the Buckeyes have been the class of the conference for the better part of the last decade.

However, there’s another team at 3-0 that has many doing a double-take. It’s not Penn State – Ohio State beat the Nittany Lions two weeks ago and James Franklin’s team has yet to win a game. It’s not Michigan – the Wolverines continue to be a non-factor in the race for the East title under Jim Harbaugh. And it’s certainly not Michigan State – the Spartans are in a full rebuild under first-year coach Mel Tucker.

Tom Allen

The other 3-0 team is Indiana, and few outside of Bloomington believed it would be in this position. One person that is hardly surprised is Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen.

“I believed that we had the opportunity to do what we're doing right now,” Allen said in an interview this week with ESPN. “So I'm not surprised that we're 3-0. I think most people are, but I'm not. I expected us to be able to compete with those teams.

“I told our team it doesn't matter what I think or what I believe. What do you believe, and what are you willing to do to create that? So that's what's really changed here, is that the guys have bought in, and they're living those things out every single day.”

More: Detroit News scouting report: Indiana at Michigan State

That buy-in from the players on the roster has created a scenario where No. 10 Indiana could head to No. 3 Ohio State next weekend with the division on the line. Of course, the Hoosiers will have to take care of business at noon Saturday when they travel to Spartan Stadium to take on Michigan State (1-2).

It’s a series that Michigan State has dominated, winning 10 of the last 11. However, things have shifted fairly dramatically and Tucker understands what his team will be facing.

“It’s a well-rounded football team,” Tucker said of the Hoosiers. “I can see why they are 3-0 and I can see why they're ranked in the top 10. We certainly have a lot of respect for the way they're coached and the way they've built that program over the past three or four years.

“But like I’ve been saying, we’ve got a lot of work to do and we're up for a challenge.”

That challenge hasn’t always existed for teams when they’ve faced Indiana. Before Allen took over to begin the 2017 season, the Hoosiers were the picture of mediocrity. They appeared in two straight bowl games in 2015 and 2016 but won only six games in each season. Before that, it had been seven seasons since Indiana played in a bowl game.

The last time the Hoosiers were anywhere near the Big Ten title chase was 1993 when they finished two games behind Ohio State and Wisconsin, and they’ve only won the conference twice – in 1945 and 1967.

Subscription: Detroit News predictions: Indiana at Michigan State

Sounds about right for a basketball school, which Indiana has always been.

But after Kevin Wilson was let go late in the 2016 season, Allen, then the defensive coordinator, took over and things started to slowly turn around.

The Hoosiers went 5-7 in each of Allen’s first two seasons at the helm, but they were starting to become a tougher team, no longer an automatic win for the conference heavyweights. And by 2019, as improved recruiting was starting to pay dividends, Indiana won eight games and ended its bowl drought by appearing in the Gator Bowl.

Michael Penix Jr.

Now, as dynamic young quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has led Indiana to wins over Penn State, Rutgers and Michigan, the Hoosiers have put themselves in prime position to contend for a title. Winning the games they’re supposed to win is a crucial step in the process, and Indiana hopes for no hiccups against Michigan State.

“We have been having a great season so far, but the season is not over,” Penix said. “We still have games that we are looking forward to like Michigan State this weekend. This is a great program, so we have to come with a positive mindset and keep that 1-0 mindset that we have had. We have to make sure we prepare the same way we did before.”

The Hoosiers understand the history they’ve had with the Spartans, so they’re not about to look at Michigan State’s record and believe things will be easy on Saturday.

A championship team takes every opponent seriously, and Indiana believes it’s just that – a championship team.

Convincing anyone else? Well, maybe that will come in time.

“I believe we can win the Big Ten here,” Allen told ESPN. “I thought that we had the support administratively when I got here, and that was a big reason I even came. ... That hasn't always been the case in Indiana ... football has always been kind of on the lower rungs behind some other things. I get it, basketball is a big deal in this state. I'm born and raised in Indiana, I understand it and I love basketball. I want us to win a national championship in basketball. But I think we can give you both.”

No. 10 Indiana at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: ABC/760

Records: Indiana 3-0; Michigan State 1-2

Line: Indiana by 7.5

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau