Kickoff: Illinois at Indiana, 3:30 p.m., Saturday
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BLOOMINGTON – So what do you do when the postseason is, in all reality, lost?
What happens when yet another game that could have been won, is not?
How do the Indiana Hoosiers, with a history of losses big and small, deal with this latest fist to the gut?
Consider quarterback Tre Roberson, who's roller coaster status -- from starter to backup to starter to, well, what? -- mirrors that of the Hoosiers. He is asked, in a somber moment in a somber Memorial Stadium weight room, if he recognizes what Saturday night's 42-39 loss to Minnesota does to IU's bowl prospects?
“We're all playing for each other,” he said. “We still have a shot. We'll keep working every day to get that shot.”
If you believe in math, IU remains in bowl contention. It needs six victories to become bowl eligible. It is 3-5 with four games left.
The Hoosiers almost certainly will beat Illinois (3-5) and Purdue (1-7) at home. The Illini haven't won a Big Ten game since 2011 (that's 18 straight losses). The Boilers have scored just seven points in their last three games, and that touchdown came thanks to busted coverage by Nebraska secondary reserves at the end of a blowout loss. They very well might not score again until 2014.
IU almost certainly will not win at No. 4 Ohio State (9-0) and at No. 22 Wisconsin (6-2).
Because of Big Ten weakness, the Buckeyes' only chance at reaching the national championship game is to crush its remaining opponents. In their last two games, they have outscored Penn State and Purdue 119-14. They are 21-0 under coach Urban Meyer. IU seems as likely to win at Ohio State Stadium as Boston is to tear down Fenway Park.
The Badgers have cranked up their defense along with their power game. They are far too physical for IU.
But that's too future oriented for the Hoosiers. For now, the focus is bouncing back from a second straight blown fourth-quarter opportunity.
On Saturday night, they rallied from a 35-13 third-quarter deficit with 26 straight points to take a 39-35 lead, only to give up a 50-yard touchdown pass on a busted coverage (tight end Maxx Williams was wide open in the middle of the field) and then fumble away what was, at worst, an overtime-forcing field goal because of a swing pass turned lateral.
That followed a trip to Michigan (where they hadn't won since 1967) in which they threw an interception and gave up two touchdowns in the final eight minutes of a 63-47 defeat.
But then the program's history is full of never-before-seen things gone wrong.
“The most important thing is to let it go,” Roberson said. “Start Monday off fresh. It's like a brand new season.”
In so many ways, the Hoosiers are agonizingly close to a breakthrough. They have a fast-scoring offense (they had six scoring drives in less than 90 seconds Saturday night), a can't miss kicker (Mitch Ewald is 7-for-7 on field goals this season after making two against Minnesota) and a resiliency that surfaces again and again.
“It's the way they battle,” coach Kevin Wilson said. “They didn't give in. The crowd had left us and they kept fighting. It was ours for the taking. They're buying into what we're doing.”
Even Indiana's much-maligned defense had its moments. It forced five punts and three fumbles (recovering one), and got a huge fourth-quarter tackle by safety Greg Heban when Minnesota (7-2), wanting nothing more to do with the Hoosiers' offense, gambled and lost on a fake punt.
In the end, it wasn't enough.
It never is.
And yet …
“Everyone is down,” Roberson said. “At the same time, everyone is ready to get back to work and get ready for next week. That's it. It's a loss, learn from it, get better from it, and get ready for next week.
“We have to make plays at the end. Make plays and be hungry.”