Isenbarger is one of three exciting sophomore backs who have made the basic difference in Indiana's team. The others are Gonso, a fast deceptive quarterback, and Jade Butcher, a flanker who has already set some pass-receiving records and whose name—think of it for a second, Jade Butcher—sounds good enough either to insure football stardom or inspire a TV western.
All three of the sophomores are gifted athletes, and Pont outrecruited some heavyweights to land them for Indiana. Notre Dame and Michigan badly wanted Isenbarger. He may be good enough to make the Hoosiers' starting basketball team and he has pole-vaulted over 13 feet. Michigan State came close on Gonso, a Findlay, Ohio marvel who was a state diving champion, a 10.2 sprinter and enough of a baseball catcher to receive a bonus offer from the Detroit Tigers. There is a simple measure of how Gonso improves Indiana football: last season the longest run an Indiana player made was 12 yards. Gonso beat that figure five times on Saturday against Wisconsin. Butcher is from near the Bloomington campus, a home-towner, a tough stonecutter who blocks as well as he catches. Purdue wrestled Pont for Butcher until the Indiana ink was dry on his letter of intent.
"You can't beat having athletes," says Pont. "We've got some more on this year's freshman team. We got them because we sold them on wanting to be pioneers at Indiana."
Indiana had tried to go out and get athletes once before, under Phil Dickens in 1957, and all it got was six years of probation from the NCAA. Pont took the job just after Indiana was released from the NCAA clink, and he has had to build from the dirt up.
Gonso, Isenbarger and Butcher were never more important to the cause than against Wisconsin last Saturday in cold, slightly snowy Bloomington. Nor were the precious fates that have controlled Indiana's destiny ever more necessary.
For most teams in the Top 10, a winless foe like Wisconsin would be a bore, but Indiana followers have learned their team could be playing Sweet Briar and be an even-money bet to lose. Bloomington was gurgling over with excited, worried, hopeful people wearing red caps, handing out little red balls and carrying homemade signs: JOHN ISENBARGER IS BART MAVERICK; HARRY GONSO WEARS ELEVATOR SHOES; PURDUE VOTES DEMOCRATIC; GOD WOULD PUNT. And 47,000 poured into Indiana's stadium to see if it all could last another week.
Indiana runs a nifty, far-flung I formation that features Gonso's passes and keepers, Isenbarger's slants and halfback passes, and Butcher's "messing around" pass patterns and crackback blocking. Early in the first quarter, after a punt and a helpful penalty, the Hoosiers got the ball on Wisconsin's 30-yard line and put all of their talents together. Gonso, who calls 90% of the plays, ran for eight yards. Isenbarger threw a pass that Butcher leaped and caught while being crushed by two defenders, and then Gonso, who phoned Pont early during the week after being injured in the Arizona game and began by saying, "Coach, this is Harry Gonso—remember me?" passed 11 yards to Isenbarger for a touchdown. The red ball was rolling—to a stop.
There were now 52 minutes left in the game, and although Gonso would zip around for 127 yards before the day ended, Indiana was to get no more offense going with consistency. It would simply have to hold Wisconsin to win. It held, in the usual Indiana fashion. For instance, on the last play of the first half, with Indiana leading 7-3, Gonso threw a fiat pass right into the hands of Wisconsin Linebacker Sam Wheeler. The nearest tackier to Wheeler was in Fort Wayne, and the linebacker headed for the Hoosiers' goal as the crowd gasped. He ran for 35 yards without any trouble and was at the Indiana 25 with his touchdown in sight when one of his teammates came roaring up from behind and tripped him. Really.
Shortly before, there had been almost as big a thrill. Isenbarger had stood back in his end zone to punt, with the crowd chanting the usual "Punt, John, punt!" But the snap was high and went astray. There was Isenbarger, with his back to all those football players, stooping in his own end zone trying to pick up the ball. It was ridiculous. Wisconsin linemen came pouring in on him, and Pont poured his coffee over his hands when he saw Isenbarger was not going to fall on the ball for a nice, cautious safety. Oh, no. John had been told to punt. He picked up the ball, ran around the end zone for an hour or two and then somehow kicked the ball 40 yards through a tiny hole in the wall of Wisconsin linemen that was upon him.
In the third quarter the Hoosiers got their winning touchdown. A Wisconsin pass was deflected, intercepted and returned to the Badger 27, and a defensive holding penalty moved Indiana close enough to score. The 14 points proved to be just enough, Wisconsin drove to a touchdown in the fourth quarter and got the ball again on its 34-yard line with 3� minutes left. It looked like time enough against Indiana's overworked defense. The Badgers proceeded to hit five passes, two of them on fourth down. They got to midfield. They got to the Indiana 30. They got to the 25. They got to the 19. They got to the 10. There was now time for one more play. Indiana's defense looked about as organized as a panty raid. The Wisconsin quarterback, John Boyajian, faded back, and it would have been funny if Indiana's rooters had then chanted, "Punt, John, punt!" but they were too busy dying.