Mount Pleasant, Mich. – If the firework display after the Hoosiers' season-opening victory Friday night signified anything it had to be a signal to warn upcoming opponents to watch out IU's talented young receivers.
In their first game as Hoosiers, redshirt freshmen James Hardy, Marcus Thigpen and James Bailey teamed up for nine of Indiana's 17 receptions for 217 yards and two touchdowns as Indiana downed Central Michigan, 20-13.
"It felt unreal to be out there," said Thigpen, who caught two passes for 94 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown. "I had to get used to it. I was little nervous at first until my first catch and my first hit. Then after that you get used to it and you just have to be ready to play."
While Thigpen's fourth-quarter touchdown was huge, it was Hardy who stole the show, pacing the Hoosiers with five receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown. His touchdown was the first score of the Terry Hoeppner era on a 21-yard strike from sophomore quarterback Blake Powers late in the second quarter.
"The big fella," said Hoeppner, referring to Hardy. "A guy who hasn't been able to practice much this summer, that has tremendous upside – James Hardy. Wow, what a special player he is going to be and was for us tonight."
The 6-7 Hardy also setup the Hoosiers' second touchdown after making a stunning grab with just over two minutes to go in the first half. On a pass from Powers that appeared uncatchable, Hardy stuck out his left hand in an attempt to make a one-handed grab and somehow tipped the ball back to himself for a 54-yard reception down to the Chippewas' one-yard line. Indiana would score two plays later on a Powers' pass to Matt O'Neal.
"I knew on the play we were going for a touchdown," said Hardy. "All I hoped was he was going to throw it to me. He did and I just made it happen. I just tipped it to myself when I saw it. I was just trying to catch up to it as quickly as I could. I tried to catch it with my left hand, but it bounced off. That was the only way I could get to it."
Hardy's performance marked the first 100-yard receiving game for a Hoosier since Courtney Roby had 154 yards against Northwestern on Oct. 9, 2004. It was also the first time a freshmen went over 100 yards in a game since Levron Williams had 105 yards in a 38-7 loss to then No. 1 Ohio State in 1998.
"He kept saying every time he'd run a deep route just throw it up, I'll catch it," said Powers. "I was like ‘all right,' so I threw it and he made an amazing catch on the sidelines. One hand, bobbled, caught it. He's a great player. I knew he was capable of doing that and he's only going to get better."
Not to be outdone, Thigpen added his own highlight to the game in the fourth quarter. After Central Michigan pulled within one point on an 80-yard touchdown run, Thigpen broke loose on a 74-yard touchdown, with most of the yards coming after he broke a tackle by a Chippewa safety. Thigpen refused to go down after getting a glimpse of pay dirt and broke the tackle and used a well-timed block from Hardy to reach the end zone.
"We ran that play a couple of times and it was wide open," said Thigpen. "I kept telling Blake to look for me. He finally looked for me and I was open. When I caught it I just saw the end zone and I had to score. No matter what, I was going to get in there."
Thigpen would finish with two catches for 94 yards and one score.
"To our credit if we did one thing tonight it was we made some plays when we had to make them," said Hoeppner. "They run 80 yards for a touchdown, but then we come back and on third down Blake stands in there and hits Marcus and then Marcus almost goes down but he makes that run after the catch – wow."
Hardy made the play that would seal the victory in the finals minutes of the game. On a fourth and 13 on the CMU 24-yard line, Hardy ran a sharp route and made the defender chose between a touchdown or a pass interference. He chose the penalty.
"I learned something a long time ago from one of my mentors," said Hoeppner. "You throw a ball in that fourth down situation. We threw it. I've seen it happen many times in that time of the game. In fact we did it once against Bill Lynch at Butler. We got a pass interference and the game is over at that point. I remembered that as I called in the play.
"We were going to throw that last one to James. I said ‘Hey Blake. Throw it to the big guy. You got it?' It was fourth down and we were going to take a shot. We got the call."
After seeing limited practice time this week while nursing a sore achilles, Hardy did not know if he would even play in the game, let alone be the Hoosiers' leading receiver.
"I was just trying to be prepared," said Hardy, who didn't start. "I've wanted this from the time they told me I was going to redshirt last year. Now I just want to go out there and do it."
If one game could predict the future, Hardy and Thigpen should have productive careers as Hoosiers – but they already knew that.
"We had the confidence before the game," said Hardy. "We talk about this every day. Me and Marcus worked for this all summer. We knew it was going to happen. We just had to wait for this day to get here."
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