Hoosiers Face Judgement Day

Five years of football have been boiled down to one Saturday for IU senior Justin Frye and his classmates. A win in West Lafayette and these seniors will long be remembered as the group that turned things around in Bloomington by snapping a 13 year bowl drought. A loss, though, and their football careers are likely over.

If you've happened to catch any ESPN coverage this week (on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, ESPN Classic, ESPN.com, The Magazine, 360, The Ocho, or otherwise) then you've heard the repetitive references to "Judgement Week". It's what that monolith sports network labels this week in college football, a Saturday filled with rivalries and big implications. Of course, the focus is on the battle in Columbus, Ohio this week as the entire nation will turn their eyes toward the Buckeye State to see who this year's national title frontrunner truly is. Everyone will be watching…well not everyone.

You can be assured that it's the farthest thing from IU senior Justin Frye's mind right now. Or receiver Jahkeen Gilmore's. Or any of the other 21 seniors that dot IU's 2006 roster. When that game kicks off those players will be sweating through the most important game of their life. For the IU seniors the last four or five years has come down to one Saturday in West Lafayette. Heck, an entire lifetime of football has been boiled down to one singular moment. That's because none of these seniors have been spotted on Mel Kiper's NFL Draft Board. A loss this weekend and their competitive football careers are almost certainly over. It's that type of realization that brings a group of football fanatics' attention into a laser-tight focus. This Saturday is a true Judgement Day for those seniors.

"I didn't sleep at all last night," said Frye. "This is it. I've played football since the third grade and I have always been a football player. Saturday I get the chance to continue to be a football player or hang it up."

It's really that simple. Win and these seniors career won't only be extended for one more game, but they enter the annals of IU football history as a very special group. A win would send the Hoosiers to a bowl game for the first time since 1993 and give them a chance to win the program's first bowl title in 15 years. They would forever become known as the group that endured three head coaches, 46 painful losses, lousy fan support in their own stadium, two brain surgeries on their beloved head coach, and countless other hardships to put the IU football program back on track. It would be a feat that no one could ever dismiss or take lightly.

"The fact that we are in this position is a tribute to the players that the goal we set on Aug. 6 is still alive," said Head Coach Terry Hoeppner.

A win against a game Purdue squad on their own turf Saturday would ensure that the tributes to these seniors keep coming for years to come. They have a chance to put 13 years of futility in the rear-view mirror and put the Hoosiers back on the Big Ten map. A 4-4 finish in arguably the nation's toughest conference is nothing to sneeze at and nothing needs to be said about what it would mean to bring the Old Oaken Bucket back to Bloomington.

"Every year it's really emotional," said senior Kenny Kendal of the rivalry game. "We haven't played well against them in the past, and hopefully this year we can change that. We need to be emotional on the field.

"This could be a lot of guys' last games. We are going to be playing our hearts out. Because it's Purdue, it just ups the ante even more."

The amount of pressure on the Hoosiers shoulders this weekend could be crippling, but only if they let it be. The pressure is there, no doubt. Not only are they seeking to renew a rivalry that has been embarrassingly one-sided over the last decade, but they are also playing to end the longest bowl drought in the Big Ten and extend their careers one more game.

"I've never played for something like this," said senior Will Meyers, summing up the collective experience of his entire team and why this challenge will be like any other they've come across.

A win, obviously, won't come easy. However, a loss wouldn't be the end of the world as much as it might feel like it on that field Saturday when the final whistle sounds. Regardless of what happens Saturday, this senior class has been part of what is sure to eventually become a remarkable turnaround story. Frye for example, was recruited by Cam Cameron and then saw him summarily dismissed. He played on unbelievably short-handed Gerry DiNardo teams and then saw him canned three years into his rebuilding efforts. He then lined up for Hoeppner, only to see his latest coach's life come into peril due to something that made football seem so very insignificant.

Yet now it has all come full-circle and the senior from Elwood, Indiana is preparing for the most significant game of his career, a game that could become the defining moment of the last fifteen years of IU football. The Hoosiers are headed up in this league, that's a fact. Hoeppner has backed up his constant positive talk with on-field proof that things are heading in the right direction this year. Whether the Hoosiers break their bowl drought this year or in 2007, or 2008 is the only question now. But after all these seniors have been through it sure would be a fitting conclusion if for just once in their IU careers they got to taste true success and jubilation. It won't be easy, not in the most hostile territory they could find this Saturday, but nothing has ever been easy for this tight-knit group. Maybe that experience will be the only advantage they need come Saturday.

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