Bloomington, Ind. – Oh, how far this Indiana football program has come.
There was a time when a five-point loss to Penn State would be celebrated in IU circles. Talk of progress and building toward the future and respectable performances on national television would follow a game like Saturday's 36-31 setback to Penn State.
But there's no joy in Bloomington. After Indiana did just enough things wrong to drop its second straight to slip to 5-3 overall and squander its second chance at bowl eligibility, there weren't many smiles in the Hoosier locker room. There was no talk of "good" losses.
While the Hoosiers' success in recent years has sometimes been measured by something other than wins and losses, this year's team looks squarely at the final score to determine success or failure.
"This is a different team," said James Hardy, fresh off his career-high 14-catch, 142-yard day against the Nittany Lions. "We expect to win now."
According to Hardy, that's a new and improved attitude. He said the past couple of teams he's been on didn't necessarily doubt it's abilities, but didn't have the same degree of faith in what it could do on Saturday afternoons.
"This is a team that we think each and every week, we've got this team," Hardy said.
That confidence will be needed this weekend when the Hoosiers head to Madison to face Wisconsin (6-2/2-2). Wisconsin not only man-handled Indiana 52-17 a year ago, but Coach Bret Bielema's team has won 12 straight at Camp Randall Stadium dating back to 2005, and UW has won 23 of its last 24 at home going back to 2003.
Once ranked in the nation's top five, back-to-back setbacks to Illinois and Penn State dropped Wisconsin out of the nation's top 25. But the Badgers re-emerged in the rankings this week after a 44-3 thumping of Northern Illinois over the weekend.
While the Hoosiers will have to contend with a raucous crowd and a bruising running game spearheaded by P.J. Hill, the thing Coach Bill Lynch is most concerned about is remedying what ailed his team last weekend – turnovers.
Try as they might, Indiana couldn't overcome four second-half fumbles Saturday, including three by quarterback Kellen Lewis. Two of Lewis' miscues came when the sophomore quarterback was being brought down on sacks, while the third was a dropped snap out of the shotgun when IU was trying to drive for a game-winning score in the closing minute.
Winning the turnover battle will be a point of emphasis this week – as it is each and every week – against a Wisconsin team that ranks 10th in the conference in the category and 11th in takeaways.
"There are too many teams that are too close in this league, if you give them more opportunities than you get, eventually it catches up with you," Lynch said.
That was the case Saturday, and Lynch doesn't want that to be repeated. At the same time, he doesn't want to have his quarterback so concerned with ball security that he doesn't try to go out and make plays against a Wisconsin defense that has given up at least 30 points in three of its four Big Ten games.
"The fine line is if that's all you coach, you coach negative," Lynch said. "You can't coach, hold onto the ball! Hold onto the ball! Kellen has to go play."
If Lewis can do that while also keeping the turnovers to a minimum, Indiana has a chance to win in Madison for the first time since 2001. It's a tall task since no one has done it since Iowa in late 2005, but this is an Indiana team that, according to Hardy, believes its football fate is squarely in its own hands – and not its opponents - on Saturday afternoons.
"As far as Illinois and Penn State, we beat ourselves," said Hardy. "We have to come in with that mind frame, knowing we beat ourselves, and no one can stop us if we do the best we can do and not make the mental mistakes."
Hardy is expecting to do that this weekend against the Badgers.
"We're trying to get three in a row going into the Purdue game," Hardy said. "In our minds, we shouldn't lose anymore…we're going to bounce back against Wisconsin and give you guys something to see."
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