Might have been an offensive line that has struggled in his absence. Might have been the player himself, who was thankful to make his season debut, thankful to be back after tearing his left ACL in spring practice.
More likely, it was both.
It means a lot, just to run out of the tunnel with those guys and your teammates, Dieffenbach, a 6-foot-3, 303-pound senior and two-year starter, said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. That's something that I've tremendously missed and try (not) to take for granted, being out there with your guys and just battling through a game and having fun.
After all, he said, It is as fun as it gets. It meant a lot to put the jersey on and get back out there with the guys.
Dieffenbach did not start the 13-7 victory over the Hoosiers, and he only played 10 snaps. Coincidence or not, the Lions rushed for 162 yards on 37 carries, their second-highest total of the season.
Dieffenbach, who plays left guard, was not on the field when tailback Bill Belton broke off a 92-yard touchdown run in the second quarter -- Derek Dowrey was playing the position at that point -- but was a day-long presence nonetheless.
Even though I think he only played, like, 10 reps, it's still significant, coach James Franklin said during Tuesday's Big Ten conference call. He's a tremendous leader and guys look up to him, but it's hard to have the type of impact you want as a leader, if you're not there -- if you're not out sweating with them, if you're not out running with them, if you're not out banging with them every single day. It deemphasizes that. So having him back and being able to make a big impact, not only physically but also from a leadership perspective, is big for us.
Franklin said Dieffenbach probably could have played a little bit more against IU, but the coaching staff elected to err on the side of caution.
And, Franklin said, I thought he did pretty well. I thought he did some nice things.
Dieffenbach said his knee felt fine, during and after the game, and that while he hopes to see more action this week against Temple and in the two regular-season games that remain beyond that, he will leave that in the hands of the coaches and medical staff.
Franklin also said Tuesday that he hopes to have left tackle Donovan Smith back for the game against the Owls. Smith, who suffered what is believed to be a concussion against Ohio State on Oct. 25, has missed the last two games. He did not practice Sunday, Franklin said, and will obviously need those reps before he returns.
With four new starters joining Smith up front at the beginning of the season -- completely new, as in zero career starts among them -- the offense has produced only 86.6 yards per game on the ground to date, third-fewest among the nation's 125 major-college teams. And quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been sacked 35 times, five short of the school's single-season record.
Dieffenbach, who has served as a de facto assistant coach on game days, was asked if he didn't have a bit of a helpless feeling as he has looked on, week after week.
“I had to really control those emotions, knowing that I was going to be back soon, but the doctors and myself and the medical staff were going to make a decision on that one.”
I wouldn't say it's helplessness, he said. The guys out there, I was fully confident in. They were getting better every game, but it was also tough not being out there with the guys. That's something I missed a lot. I missed that experience. I had to really control those emotions, knowing that I was going to be back soon, but the doctors and myself and the medical staff were going to make a decision on that one. I had to do what I could from the sideline.
The line's improvement has been difficult to see, given what the stat sheet says.
It's tough, but sometimes that's how it goes, he said. You've got to roll with the punches. That's part of the game. All you can control is playing your hardest, and getting better every week, and that's something our guys have done. Couldn't be prouder of them.
Dieffenbach suffered his injury in April and underwent surgery soon after. He said at Lift For Life in mid-July that he hoped to return at some point late in the season, and while recovery from an ACL injury typically takes eight months to a year, there have been cases where players have returned after six months. He hit that milepost last month.
He was able to do some very limited work in practice early this season, and was cleared to scrimmage in mid-October. And the process, he said, is a matter of just staying positive and putting your head down and going to work. That's just really the only option.
He said he never felt any trepidation once he hit the practice field, that he had complete faith in the doctors and trainers. He also said there was no final hurdle that had to be crossed before he was cleared for game action.
It was just kind of a decision that myself, my family, the team doctors and the athletic trainer made, he said. Just kind of overseeing practice and then just realizing, 'Hey, we're ready to go here. Let's get you in there.'
Now there's no turning back.
I knew we had great trainers and doctors, he said, and that God was going to take care of the rest, and if I worked my hardest I would be back this season and (would) play with my guys. It all worked out, thanks to them, and hopefully I can finish out the season strong.