Bloomington, Ind. – It's the first week of October, and Indiana is already thinking about the holidays.
The Hoosiers took a giant step toward fulfilling their goal of "Playing 13" with a 40-20 win over Minnesota at Memorial Stadium. With the win, the Hoosiers improved to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten and moved within one win of become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. With a month and a half remaining in the regular season, Coach Bill Lynch's team will have six chances to secure a sixth win and become bowl eligible.
"I really like the way this team works," said Indiana Coach Bill Lynch. "I like the way they come to practice. They come and give you a good honest day's work.
"This team has been really good about what we talked about. We got a game next week and that's our focus."
One game at a time has been the Hoosiers' mantra and the Hoosiers certainly weren't looking ahead on the schedule on this Saturday. Instead, payback was on the Hoosiers' minds. After getting pasted 63-26 in the Metrodome last year and with a bowl game eligibility once again palpably close, the Hoosiers weren't lacking motivation.
"The kids talked about it," said Lynch. "We didn't need to talk about it. They didn't need to be reminded.
"I think the only thing I did was when we had a little meeting after practice on Thursday how many of you were in the Metrodome last year and a bunch of hands went up."
With that crushing defeat still fresh in their minds the Hoosiers came out determined Saturday. The IU offense scored on eight of their first nine possessions, the lone empty scoring drive coming when the Hoosiers took a knee to end the first half. By that time Indiana had racked up a 27-14 lead and were well on their way to a comfortable win.
The Hoosier scoring onslaught started on IU's first possession after a 51-yard bomb from the arm of Kellen Lewis found receiver James Hardy for a 51-yard gain. That put IU just seven yards away from paydirt and moments later Lewis found Hardy on a fade route for a quick 7-0 lead. Lewis was impressive as usual, finishing the day with 235 passing yards on 24-36 passing and 75 rushing yards. It was his eighth career game with 300+ yards of total offense. His early touchdown strike to Hardy marked the seventh game in a row the junior receiver has caught a touchdown reception, a new school record.
Minnesota would quickly answer back, though, with a seven play, 80-yard scoring drive that took just three minutes. Minnesota quarterback Ben Weber fooled the IU defense on a fake handoff before scampering into the tie the game early.
With the game tied at 7, seldom-used Hoosier running back Bryan Payton entered the equation. Replacing the injured starter Marcus Thigpen (ankle) and reserve Josiah Sears (concussion), Payton came through with a break-through performance on Saturday that started with his 48-yard touchdown run on IU's next offensive possession. It was the Hoosiers longest touchdown run since 2001, but it was just the beginning for Payton, who would finish the day with a career-high 90 yards and three touchdowns on just 13 carries. His three score day was the most since former Hoosier BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran wild against Northwestern in 2003. Payton entered the game as the Hoosiers fourth option at tailback behind Thigpen, Sears, and Demetrius McCray, but showed he was more than ready for the limelight.
"Your really happy for a guy like that," said Lynch. "That's why these kids practice so hard and lift all year, because you never know when your opportunity is going to come. That's why as a coach your really happy for a kid that is ready when the opportunity comes."
After Payton's career-long touchdown run gave the Hoosiers a 14-7 lead, Minnesota quickly countered again with their own scoring drive. Duane Bennett converted on fourth down with a one-yard touchdown run, but it would be the last time the Gophers would see the endzone until the game was far out of hand. After that score the IU defense stiffened faster than cement. A stingy rush defense allowed just 40 rushing yards through three quarters of play and the pass defense was just as good. Minnesota wasn't able to put anything together over the next two quarters of play as the IU defense used a solid pass rush, good coverage, and aggressive tackling to smother the Gophers.
"I thought our defense really played well after the first couple of drives and got their feet underneath them," said Lynch. "They were really solid and didn't give up the big plays. There were a few times in the first half we missed some tackles, but we were hitting them...we were getting after them."
While the IU defense was shutting out the Gophers, IU kicker Austin Starr began piling up points. The junior kicker came through with a career-high four field goals on the day, including a 47-yarder. Starr has made nine consecutive field goals dating back to last year and now sits just one away from tying the all-time school record. With Payton finding the endzone multiple times on the ground, Lewis spreading the ball around through the air, and Starr finishing stalled drives with three points, the Hoosier offense built a comfortable 33-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
"We had good balance (on offense)," said Lynch of his Hoosiers, who would finish the day with 228 rushing yards and 235 passing yards. "We were pretty balanced run and pass and that's something that has been a real goal of ours since last spring. Today was one of those days."
Minnesota did try to creep back into the game after a Weber touchdown pass cut the lead to 33-20 and then forced a three and out from the Indiana offense. Looking to cut the lead to just six points on their next drive the Gophers were instead stymied nearly single-handedly by sophomore linebacker Will Patterson. During that Gopher drive Patterson knocked down two passes in three plays. Winded, Patterson was looking for the sidelines, but the IU coaching staff told him to stay on the field. He was happy they did as the very next play saw the Indianapolis native step in front of a Weber pass and make a 45-yard interception return down to the Minnesota five-yard line. Five seconds later Payton was in the endzone again, pushing the IU lead to 40-20 and icing the victory for IU.
"He was begging to come off the field, because he was so tired but he stayed out there," said Lynch of Patterson. "He's a good football player and they happened to be passing to his side.
"That was huge. We got some pressure on the quarterback and as a result forced them to throw a little quick. Of course, his interception was a great play because he bobbled it, re-gathered, and then showed he could run pretty good down the sideline as well."
It was just another great individual effort for the Hoosiers on a day full of them. Indiana's balanced offensive attack and swarming defense proved on this day that they aren't to be taken lightly in the Big Ten. More importantly, they stand just one victory away from becoming bowl-eligible and fulfilling late Coach Terry Hoeppner's wish of "Playing 13".
"We are taking it one week at a time," said Lynch. "This is a good football team and they are doing a great job of focusing each week on the task at hand."
Hoosiers Whip Minnesota, 40-20
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