Hoosiers believe bucket belongs in Bloomington

The last five years have been an education for Indiana senior Reakwon Jones.

A native of Florida, Jones can’t claim much prior knowledge of the Old Oaken Bucket. But he’s sat through multiple slideshows on its history now. He’s listened to impassioned speeches from assistant athletic director Mark Deal, a former player and coach, on what beating Purdue meant to Hoosier legends Lee Corso and Bill Mallory. IU coach Tom Allen has repeatedly brought out the bucket’s case, empty.

The bucket isn’t just a wooden antique from the Bruner Farm in southern Indiana. It’s filled with nearly a century’s worth of hard-fought battles, dating back to a 0-0 tie in 1925. For this year’s senior class, it’s a series the Hoosiers owned at first but then lost a grip on.

The Bucket has a home, in Jones’ mind. And it sure isn’t West Lafayette.

“This game is so big, not only because it’s the next game, but because it’s a rivalry game, it’s the Bucket game, it’s the team from northern Indiana that has taken the Bucket from us, twice,” Jones said. “So I mean, I’m fired up for this one, I’m ready to go … I’m ready to finish this regular season right and carry that momentum to the bowl game.”

This game has shorter- and longer-term consequences.

Win, and the Hoosiers head into the postseason as an eight-win team for the first time since 1993. It gives the Hoosiers a sixth win over Purdue this decade, the most for IU since it claimed seven victories in the ‘40s. As far as in-state recruiting, the Hoosiers would gain another edge.

Lose the game, and IU and Purdue split the 2010s. The Hoosiers head into the postseason at 7-5, losers of three straight, and the Old Oaken Bucket stays in West Lafayette for the third year in a row.

That’s a painful thought for the Hoosiers, especially a senior like Nick Westbrook. The fifth-year receiver was injured in 2017, the year the Boilermakers took custody of the bucket.

“In my eyes, it belongs here,” Westbrook said, “and I’m going to do whatever I can to get it back.”

The stretch-run of this season is important to the Hoosiers’ outgoing class. This is where they cement their legacy as the group that changed the trajectory of the program. Or, this is where their breakthrough campaign fizzles.

Westbrook and Jones and the rest of the Floridians on the roster didn’t know much about the bucket before they moved north to play for IU. But heartbreaking games, like the last two years, and statement games, like this one could be, add meaning to a decades-old affair.

The newest generation of Hoosiers from The Sunshine State, such as freshman corner Tiawan Mullen, sophomore linebacker Micah McFadden, and others, are being made to understand the gravity of IU-Purdue.

“We have a lot of young kids from Florida, just a lot of young kids, in general, that don’t know much about this rivalry,” Jones said. “It is on us, it’s on us older upperclassmen to fill them in on why this game is so big.”

In 2019, Purdue (4-7) has been ravaged by injuries, but it would be foolish for the Hoosiers to take their rival lightly.

The Boilermakers boast the No. 2 passing offense in the Big Ten, including freshman receiving sensations David Bell. On the other side of the ball, freshman defensive end George Karlaftis can be a nuisance.

On the other hand, Purdue has obvious weaknesses, including the second-worst rush defense in the conference, allowing opponents to rack up 193 yards per contest.

It’s just a question of whether IU can execute. There is also a question as to whether the Hoosiers will have sophomore running back Stevie Scott, who suffered a lower-leg injury in the loss to Michigan. Freshman left tackle Matt Bedford was hurt on the same play, as well.

“Just working through it. We don’t know yet,” Allen said Wednesday. “Rehabbing, working through the process of trying to get them ready.”

Playing without either of those pieces would be a challenge. But the Hoosiers will have junior receiver Whop Philyor back Saturday; he missed the Michigan contest following a concussion suffered at Penn State.

Compared to past seasons, Allen feels better about the Hoosiers’ health leading into this Bucket Game.

“The last couple of years we’ve kind of felt like we were tired going into the game,” Allen said. “We just tried to modify things for that purpose to make sure we are fresh with our legs and our minds for the game.

“Late-season opportunities like this, you want to be at your best, and I haven’t felt like we’ve played our best football in this game the last couple years.”

For Westbrook, he won’t have another late-season opportunity like this ever again. He doesn’t want his last Purdue game to end up feeling like the last two.

“I definitely took that personal, having a bitter taste at the end of the season, kind of fueled the motivation of this year,” Westbrook said. “How can we better to flip that script? Definitely personal.”


1. Youth movement.

IU has a roster with 53 true or redshirt freshmen. Purdue boasts 33, including 13 starters. On both sides, a lot of players will be introduced to the rivalry for the first time, making this the start of a back-and-forth that will go on for years. One intriguing matchup will be IU freshman corner Tiawan Mullen versus freshman receiver David Bell. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound target has hauled in 77 catches for 899 yards this season, which ranks first and fourth in the Big Ten, respectively. Mullen has eight pass deflections, tied for 11th in the conference. Also, sophomore Reese Taylor, an Indy native like Bell, will get the start across from Mullen. The youngins will have a large say in how this one turns out.

2. Preparing for all possibilities.

There is a good chance IU will not see two of the Boilermakers’ biggest stars, sophomore receiver Rondale Moore and senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal, due to injuries. But there is still a chance, which means the Hoosiers will have to prepare like both are available. The same goes for Purdue with IU running back Stevie Scott, who is questionable with a lower-leg injury. Of the two programs, Purdue has been the most afflicted by the injury bug, so the addition of Moore or Neal would be a major boost. But Scott could do major damage to a Purdue rush defense that trails only Rutgers in rush yards allowed, surrendering 193 per game. Stay tuned.

3. O’Connell at the helm.

Aidan O’Connell is a familiar name to at least one Hoosier. He was a teammate of IU men’s basketball player Justin Smith on the hardwood at Stevenson High (Ill.). After two years of not playing a snap, the walk-on quarterback has ascended to a leading role for the No. 2 passing offense in the Big Ten because of injuries to Elijah Sindelar and Jack Plummer. Can he keep the Boilermakers’ passing attack rolling? He’s had some success since Plummer went down, completing 60-of-93 for 559 yards and four touchdowns versus Northwestern and Wisconsin.

4. Exacting revenge.

The Bucket should be enough to inspire both programs, but the intensity of this game is slightly elevated by the circumstances of the last two years. The Hoosiers’ last two losses not only lost the bucket but also cut short their bowl hopes, ending their season. Purdue, on the other hand, comes into this game two wins shy of bowl eligibility, so there is literally nothing to play for — other than spoiling the Hoosiers’ season, which, for Purdue, should be enough.

By the numbers

1: The number of touchdowns Stevie Scott needs to score to tie Pete Pihos (23) for No. 10 all-time in IU football history.

2: Consecutive wins for Purdue in the series. The longest streak in the series is 10 for the Boilermakers (1948-57). It immediately followed IU’s longest streak (‘44-47).

5: Indiana’s wins over Purdue in the 2010s. IU has only had more wins than losses to Purdue in a decade twice — the 1940s (7-3) and 1900s (4-2-1).

95: The number of times the Hoosiers and Boilermakers have played for the Old Oaken Bucket.

378: Passing yards Peyton Ramsey needs to reach IU’s career top 5, tying Kellen Lewis (6,395). He’s three TDs shy of tying Antwaan Randle El for fourth all-time.