MT. PLEASANT, Mich. –In a day of dynamic debuts, it was 6'7" Hoosier freshman James Hardy who dazzled on Friday night.
The IU wideout caught a 21-yard touchdown pass to put the Hoosiers on the board in the second quarter and then hauled in an acrobatic 54-yard reception on IU's next drive to set up a second score, helping the Hoosiers to a 20-13 win over Central Michigan at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in the both teams' season openers.
First-year IU Coach Terry Hoeppner, who picked up his first win as a Big Ten head coach, had expected Hardy to see limited snaps due to a nagging Achilles injury that had kept the Hoosiers' two-sport standout on the sidelines more often than not during the last two weeks of practice. But it was his pair of plays in the second quarter that turned around a game that had been dominated by the Chippewas early.
"I didn't know I'd play that much, but once I was out there, I didn't want to come out," said Hardy, who finished with five catches for 107 yards and the touchdown.
With Hardy on the sidelines early and the team dealing with some early game jitters, the offense struggled to get anything going. Indiana went three-and-out on its first four possessions, and didn't record a first down until two minutes into the second quarter. Central Michigan, meanwhile, owned a 112-11 edge in total offense in the first quarter and opened a 3-0 lead on a 30-yard Rick Albreski field goal midway through the second quarter.
Central Michigan appeared poised to extend its lead after the ensuing kickoff. The Chippewas pooched the kickoff short to IU's Ben Ishola, who fumbled the ball back to CMU inside the Indiana 35-yard line. But an illegal procedure call against the Chippewas for not having enough players lined up on each side of the kicker brought the play back, setting the stage for Hardy's back-to-back big plays.
"I think the momentum of the game definitely swung on that procedure penalty," said CMU Coach Brian Kelly. "Indiana went on to score 14 straight points. It was the key play of the game."
The play proved to be the sort of break Indiana needed.
"We were uptight (early) – really uptight," said Hoeppner. "I tried everything I know – I hollered at them, then I was nice to them…then I said, ‘okay, here's the deal – you're walking back if you don't start making some plays.'"
Hardy was the first to answer Hoeppner's plea.
In his first start at quarterback, sophomore Blake Powers found Hardy open on a skinny post pattern to give the Hoosiers a 7-3 lead. After the Chippewas went three-and-out on their next drive, Hardy struck again on IU's next offensive play. Powers hoisted a deep ball down the sideline, and Hardy elevated over cornerback Ronnie Jackson. Hardy tipped the ball with his left hand and then corralled the throw inside the 10, eventually going down at the CMU one-yard line. Two plays later, Powers found Matt O'Neal open in the back of the end zone for IU's second touchdown in the final 3:25 of the first half.
Powers, who came back from a sluggish start to complete 17-of-35 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns, said Hardy had told him to look for him on the play if he was in single coverage.
"He kept saying, ‘just throw it up and I'll catch it,' and he did," said Powers. "A one-hand bobble and he caught it."
While Hardy helped Indiana turn its fortunes around early, another Hoosier redshirt freshman – Marcus Thigpen – came up with the biggest play of the second half. After Central Michigan had cut the lead to 14-13 early in the fourth quarter on an 80-yard touchdown run by true freshman Ontario Sneed, Thigpen caught a Powers pass over the middle, broke a tackle, and raced 74 yards for a touchdown to give Indiana a 20-13 lead.
"When I caught it I saw the end zone and I knew I had to score," said Thigpen.
Midway through the fourth quarter CMU threatened to tie the game as it drove inside the IU 40. But on a 3rd-and-7 play, CMU quarterback Kent Smith's throw went through the hands of a wide open Obed Cetoute inside the IU five-yard line.
Indiana eventually put the game away with an eight-play drive that ran off the game's final 3:14. Yamar Washington ripped off 32 of his team-high 108 yards on the drive's second play, and the final nail in CMU's coffin came on a 4th-and-13 play with just over a minute remaining. Powers' throw to Hardy went incomplete, but a pass interference call on Ronnie Jackson gave the Hoosiers a first down inside the 10. IU ran out the clock and escaped with just the program's second road victory in its last 20 tries.
"We'll take a win whether it's 50 (points) or one – a win is a win," said Powers.
While Hoeppner was happy to get his first win at IU under his belt, he also knows that Friday night's effort suggests there's plenty of work to do if his team is to achieve its goal of winning at least six games and earning a bowl invitation.
"What I learned (about the team) is we have a lot to work on," said Hoeppner. "We're no where close to where we need to be."
Rushing: Indiana-Washington 20-108; Taylor 17-30-0; Powers 6-(-26). Central Michigan: Sneed 14-148; Jasmin 2-24; Lewis 7-6; Harper 1-3; Smith 8-(-14).
Passing:Indiana-Powers 35-17-1 276. Central Michigan: Smith 36-18-0 216.
Receiving:Indiana: Hardy 5-107; Gilmore 4-48; Thigpen 2-92; Bailey 2-18; O'Neal 2-15; Taylor 1-0; Washington 1-(-4). Central Michigan: Sneed 4-9; Jasmin 3-38; Harper 3-12; Linson 2-69; Brown 2-50; Cetoute 2-33; Lewis 1-8; Peyerk 1-(-3).
Tackles:Indiana: Pannozzo 6-0-6 (3 TFLs-19 yds), Majors 3-3-6, Killion 3-3-6, Adeyanju 5-0-5 (2 TFLs, 6 yards), Porter 4-1-5, Grosfield 3-2-5 (1 TFL, 1 yard), Lumpkin 2-3-5. Central Michigan: Keith 13-3-16 (3 TFLs, 9 yards), Bazuin 9-1-10 (2 TFLs, 23 yards), Thompson 3-5-8, Brown 5-2-7 (2 ½ TFLs, 11 yards), Kress 3-1-4, Jackson 3-1-4.