For Indiana football, Saturday's game against Purdue was meaningless in terms of the Big Ten standings. A season that began with much promise and high expectations finished once again without a bowl game.
To IU's seniors, the game represented one last chance to leave their mark on a program still building toward consistent success.
Boy, did they deliver.
Indiana's seniors made big play after big play in the Hoosiers' 56-36 over the in-state rival Boilermakers, bringing the Old Oaken Bucket back to Bloomington for the first time since 2010. It was the ultimate consolation prize for a talented class of seniors.
"Right after the game I shed a few tears because it really hit me that I'm done," senior running back Stephen Houston said. "Other than that, at the end of the day we did get the ‘W,' so that's all that I'm happy about."
Houston, who came to Indiana in 2011 as a sophomore junior college transfer from Independence Community College in Kansas, ran for 120 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns against the Boilers. He finishes his career tied for fourth in school history in rushing touchdowns (25) and sixth in total touchdowns (29).
"It felt good," he said. "I was going to leave it all out there on the field, and I have nothing left here. So this was my bowl game, this was my national championship game. Just empty my whole clip, come out exhausted because this is my last game in an IU uniform."
Houston wasn't the only one climbing up the IU leader boards. Senior tight end Ted Bolser, who was already the program record-holder for receiving touchdowns and yards by a tight end, became the all-time receptions leader for an IU tight end with three catches for 16 yards and a touchdown.
Bolser said he wasn't aware of how close he was to the record until somebody told him earlier in the week, and that the coaching staff made a concerted effort to make sure he was targeted enough times to get the record.
"It means a lot," Bolser said about breaking the receptions record. "This university has been around for a very long time, and the players that have been through here and just to be mentioned with everybody — I couldn't ask for it to end a better way."
The emotions of IU's seniors after the game were palpable. Some, like Houston, admitted to having already teared up. Others said it would hit them later.
"I know it's all going to hit me later tonight or tomorrow," senior wide receiver Kofi Hughes said. "I haven't cried yet or nothing like that, but I know that I will. But I've got my family with me, I've got all the guys coming over tonight so it's a happy, happy moment."
Hughes did his part to get the win, catching three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. His first grab, a 30-yarder, was in spectacular fashion. With Indiana up 7-0 midway through the first quarter and Indiana closing in on the redzone, Purdue jumped offsides on a third-and-one play.
Sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson took his free shot down the field to Hughes, who stopped mid-cut to fully extend for the ball while falling out of bounds at the one-yard line.
It was the kind of play that set the tone for the rest of the game: the seniors came to play. They knew it was their last game, and you could tell.
"I think you could kind of it see it in peoples' eyes realizing this is there last time out there," said senior safety Greg Heban. "Me, Ted and Kofi being captains, saw them both get touchdowns and I was kind of waiting for my opportunity but didn't really get that one.
"But it's been an unbelievable journey and I wish it wasn't going to end."
Heban had just three tackles against the Boilers, which doesn't reflect his entire body of work as a defensive back. The former IU baseball player cracked the top-10 in career interceptions with eight and became the undisputed leader of the defense following the graduation of Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. last season.
"I think there were kind of mixed emotions: happiness, sadness, realizing this was going to be our last go around," Heban said. "But overall just happiness realizing that we got out the way we wanted to getting the bucket, coming out winners and now it's just kind of soaking it all in.
"I kind of already miss it. It's only been an hour or so, but I think all the seniors are going to miss playing here. It's been a great journey but I think we're all going to miss it."
Other seniors with impressive careers got a chance to contribute one last time. Duwyce Wilson, who along with Bolser and Hughes finishes with more than 1,000 yards receiving, had three catches for 34 yards. Kicker Mitch Ewald, who is Indiana's all-time leader in extra points, points by a kicker, field goals and field goal percentage, made all eight of his extra points to help IU put up a school record for points scored in the Bucket game.
"My thought was, ‘You have a long time to reminisce and remember, but you have one last chance to play this week,'" Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said about the message he gave to his seniors. "There is a way you prepare and way you have to have your mindset to finish the way you want. That doesn't mean the play is going to be called or the coverage is going to be set so that you make the plays, but it was really good to get those guys involved today."All of our key seniors contributed and we needed them all."
Their contributions go beyond this win. Hughes talked about how he, Bolser, Wilson and other seniors bought into Wilson's plan to change the culture of Indiana football while many others jumped ship. Heban, for example, said this senior class has set the standard for what is expected of the underclassmen joining Indiana football.
And all the seniors said the program was moving in the right direction despite the win-loss record. They can take credit for setting the foundation for future success.
"I'm just proud and I'm happy, man," Hughes said. "There's a lot of stuff behind the scenes that a lot of people don't know about, and it wasn't always easy to be a Hoosier. I'm just really proud of where our team is at today and where they're going to be able to take this program next year."