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In Indiana everybody says keep the big red ball rolling—and hands you a little red ball. Everybody is superstitiously afraid to change clothes and is looking for lucky pennies. Everybody is making reservations for Pasadena and the Rose Bowl. Everybody is praying that their punter will—please—punt. Everybody is doing all of this because a football phenomenon has overflowed the banks of the Wabash, and although undemented people think that reality is going to set back in very soon, it just might not. As everybody in Indiana says, God may be alive and playing defensive end for the Hoosiers.
No matter who is really at defensive end, a miracle of some sort has occurred. Indiana University, a school with about as much romance in its football past as a stone quarry, won its seventh straight game last week when it slipped by Wisconsin 14-9. Indiana does not usually win seven games in seven years. Granted, the Hoosiers have not exactly overpowered the class teams of the nation. In fact, all of the poor Wisconsins on its schedule have a combined record of 12-34-3 which, as statistics go, rates up there with Germany's record in world wars. Moreover, Indiana has barely beaten six of its victims, resorting to some of the most self-torturing climaxes since radio serials. But Indiana is 7-0, nevertheless, for the first time in its history, and there it sits in the national ratings, one of the only four perfect-record teams left in major college football and tied for the lead in the Big Ten conference.
Indiana really is only a couple of heartbeats away from the Rose Bowl now. If, somehow or other, in some implausible way, the Hoosiers can win one of their three remaining games—against Michigan State, Minnesota and Purdue—they have a smiling chance. If they can win two, they are likely to go for certain. Or if they could just defeat Minnesota on November 18, that alone might do it, for Purdue cannot go. In the complicated Big Ten scramble, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota each has a 4-0 record. Because of a wonderful freak of scheduling, they must all play each other 'in their last three games.
What has made the season so glorious for Indiana is its football tradition. Although it has been playing the game for 81 years, it has captured only one conference championship, and that was in 1945 when most squads still had their quarterbacks off throwing hand grenades. Indiana has produced only 10 teams in the last 50 years with a won-lost percentage better than .500, and it has never turned out a unanimous All-America. Football has been so curiously distressed at Indiana that its present fans actually look back with fondness on the glory-filled year of 1958 when the Hoosiers came up with a 5-3-1 record.
Out of the Ivy League and into this dreary setting in 1965 came Johnny Pont, who reeks of energy and optimism and all such attributes that good coaches have. With him this year is a lunatic group of sophomores who do some of the things Pont tells them and a few things he would not dream of telling them. And with him, too, has been, well—luck. Add it up, and suddenly the past is meaningless. Indiana has come from behind to win, and Indiana has held on to win. It has won with a clock-beating drive and with a desperate goal-line defense. It has won throwing, and running, and kicking and screaming.
"All I know is, we're uninhibited and unexpected," says Pont, who is not the kind to talk about luck but is pleased because the Indiana basketball coach hides lucky pennies around Pont's office for Pont to find. "I ask my players what they're going to do to us next, and they just giggle, because I'm sure they don't know either."
Standing on the sideline with a red thermos cup that his manager constantly keeps filling with coffee, Pont has agonized while his Hoosiers have survived in the following manner:
They began by edging Kentucky 12-10 when sophomore Quarterback Harry Gonso threw a fourth-down, 23-yard pass to End Al Gage that was deflected—yes—into his hands for a touchdown. Next they beat Kansas 18-15 on a 24-yard field goal by Dave Kornowa, who is not the regular place-kicker but who was asked to attempt it because Indiana's real kicker, Don Warner, had, at the time, an arthritic toe. The Hoosiers then topped Illinois 20-7 after Linebacker Brown Marks caused a first-down Illinois fumble on Indiana's 12-yard line late in the fourth quarter when Pont's team was clinging to a 13-7 lead. They had Iowa beaten the next Saturday until sophomore Halfback John Isenbarger decided it would be fun to try to run from punt formation on fourth down and failed, setting up the Hawkeyes for a go-ahead touchdown. Undaunted, Indiana came back to drive 60 yards for a score with 53 seconds left and win 21-17. Isenbarger, incredibly, did the same thing against Michigan the next week, and thereby made himself one of the Big Ten's most celebrated backs of the year. Instead of punting late in the game, he ran—from his own 13-yard line—and failed. Michigan tied the score, and Pont's team had to drive 85 yards to win 27-20 in the last two minutes. That was the third time during the season Isenbarger had decided on his own to run instead of punt and the second time he had failed.
"When he did it against Michigan, it was the maddest I've ever been in my life," says Pont, who in past years has been with a winner at Miami of Ohio and Yale. Before Pont could say a word to Isenbarger on the bench, however, the big, blond sophomore rushed up to him with his hands on his headgear and yelled something. "Coach," Isenbarger shouted. "Why do I do things like that?" It was a question Pont would like to have answered.
The suspense of seeing Isenbarger in punt formation has given the crowd at Indiana home games a new chant that goes: "Punt, John, punt!" Her son's missteps even led Mrs. Isenbarger to send a wire to her boy in Phoenix the day Indiana defeated Arizona 42-7. The wire read: DEAR JOHN. PLEASE PUNT.