There were moments in Indiana's football season opener against Southern Illinois two weeks ago when I wondered if this might be the worst Indiana football team I've seen in my six-plus years in Bloomington. That's something I didn't expect to wonder this year, not after the Hoosiers went 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first season with the team.
Yet here we sit, a mere two weeks later, and the Hoosiers are a perfect 3-0 for the first time since 2010. They've hardly been dominant, and their defense still stinks, but that's been the case for many of the years I've covered this program. Is it possible, though, that these Hoosiers are different? Is it possible that these Hoosiers are for real?
Before I go any further, let me remind you that my expectations for this team weren't exactly soaring. I mean, they were lucky to escape with a win against FCS Southern Illinois in the opener. But the Hoosiers, though keeping their fans on the edge of their seats until the bitter end in all three games, seem to have learned some important lessons from their past failures.
This team, unlike Indiana teams of the past, gets better as the game goes on. The Hoosiers have outscored their opponents 44-0 in the third quarter through three games. In the past, they often folded when things got tough.
"We're becoming a second-half team," said wide receiver Ricky Jones, who had five catches for 126 yards and a touchdown. "We never go into halftime worrying about anything. That's the difference this year in this team. [In the past] you had a lot of dudes hyped up and worried about a lot of things. We've practiced being calm and just being ready for the next play. That's something coach Wilson really preaches. Like I had a big game [against Southern Illinois], he said, 'Ricky, if you were any good, you would come back next week and do it again.'"
This team, unlike Indiana teams of the past, makes their own breaks, rather than saying 'the breaks just didn't go our way' when the game's over. In Saturday's 38-35 win over Western Kentucky, those breaks manifested themselves in the form of two third-quarter interceptions of elite quarterback Brandon Doughty, as well as a blocked field goal and a critical 4th down stop from the 1-yard line.
And this team, unlike Indiana teams of the past, finds ways to win games at the end, rather than finding ways to lose them. And while the final scores may not look all that impressive on paper, there's something to be said for having the maturirty to make the plays necessary to win. Other Indiana teams have frozen in the biggest moments, just waiting for something to go wrong. When things go wrong for this team, the Hoosiers don't seem to panic.
"This is our best group of senior leadership because they've been with [our staff] the whole time," Wilson said. "Those guys are in sync with us. I think part of it is our seniors, our leaders are totally invested with us and they have no second doubts. They see it, they like it. The way last season ended, they knew it could have gone in a different direction. Even though we only won one game down the stretch, they came out of their feeling, 'Hey, we're kinda close.'"
Now, I say all that to say this: I'm not sure if this Indiana team is for real. I'm nowhere near ready to go there. I know, not exactly an earth-shattering prediction from a man paid to give his opinion. There are a couple of things I know for certain:
- This offense is good enough to win some games, as long as the defense doesn't lose them. Jordan Howard fits this offense so well, and his ball-control style allows the Hoosiers to keep their defense off the field far more than they did with home-run hitter Tevin Coleman last year. If the wide receivers group can continue to develop and grow, this could be an elite offense.
- If the Hoosiers want to go bowling this year, they will have to create turnovers like they did on Saturday. They're going to give up tons of big plays, yards and points. That's a fact I've accepted at this point, and I'm sure you have too. But they can still win some games by taking a few possessions away from the opposition, if not from turnovers, then by plays on special teams. They did just enough on Saturday. Can they do it on a regular basis? That's the real question.
How will this Indiana season end? I don't know. It could end with a bowl game, or it could end with another losing season and more disappointment in Hoosier Nation. It's too soon to say. But I do know this: Three wins are significantly better than three losses, and Indiana is off to its best start in the Kevin Wilson Era. That's something to talk about.
"We're high in stats, everybody complains, that's a sign of our program growing. We kind of like that," Wilson said. "We take that as a positive challenge, and we embrace that. Our kids like that.
"It'll be interesting to see how far this team wants to go. They've worked hard, they've prepared hard, now we're going to see how hard they're willing to push themselves to really be a good team."