Bloomington, Ind. – The IU football team got the win it's been waiting for.
Now, the question is whether or not it will be enough.
Kellen Lewis shook off a turnover-prone start to amass 406 yards of total offense and four touchdowns to lead Indiana to a 38-20 win over Ball State. With the win, Indiana improves to 6-4 and becomes bowl eligible for the first time since 1994.
"(Being bowl eligible) is great, it's great for IU, it's great for the fans, it's great for the alums," said James Hardy, who caught eight passes for 116 yards and two more touchdowns. "It's a great feeling, but we're not done yet."
The fact is, Indiana will likely need at least one more win to feel comfortable that it will, in fact, earn its first bowl invitation since 1993. The Hoosiers became the seventh Big Ten team to become bowl eligible with the win, but there remain three more teams (Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State) that need just one more win to join the Big Ten's bowl eligible crowd. With the conference guaranteed only seven bowl bids, Indiana will likely need to win one of its last two games to "Play 13."
"I just don't know how this whole thing is going to play out so I'm not really going to speak to that, but I will say that we talked with the seniors and with the football team really for the first time about how special it is to have the opportunity to be on a bowl team," said Indiana Coach Bill Lynch. "Most of the guys on our coaching staff have had that opportunity and it is special and our guys haven't had the opportunity to experience that.
"We were close enough to talk about how special that can be."
On Saturday, Indiana got a little closer with one of the wins it had to have. Three early IU turnovers helped Ball State open a 10-3 lead at the end of the first quarter, but Indiana scored three unanswered second quarter touchdowns to take control.
The first of those scores came from Ray Fisher, who took a quick pass from Lewis and raced 60 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of two scores on the day for Fisher, who led the Hoosiers with 134 receiving yards on six catches.
"Ray doesn't need confidence," joked Indiana Coach Bill Lynch when asked if that play provided a lift for Fisher mentally. "Ray wants that ball in his hands all the time. You don't know where he is going to go, but he wants and he is going to take off."
Christopher Phillips, meanwhile, put IU on top for good on the ensuing possession when he stepped in front of a Nate Davis pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown. That play gave the Hoosiers their first lead of the game at 17-10 and seemed to cause a seismic momentum shift.
"When you score on defense that's huge and that's something we hadn't done in a few weeks," said Lynch. "I like the way the defense played the whole game."
Hardy then scored the first of his two touchdowns late in the half to put the Hoosiers up 24-10 at half. The 6-foot-7 All-Big Ten candidate finished the game with eight catches for 116 yards and tied Ernie Jones for the single-season scoring record with 13 receiving touchdowns. His 33 career touchdowns ties him with former Nittany Lion Bobby Engram for fourth all-time in Big Ten history.
Of course, Hardy's big day wouldn't have been possible without his quarterback Lewis. The duo became the most prolific scoring duo in Hoosier history with their 23rd career scoring connection. While Lewis struggled early with costly turnovers (he now has six fumbles in his last three games), he finished strong. Afterwards, Lynch was quick to remind everyone that it's not an easy position to play, especially when the Hoosiers ask so much of their second-year starter.
"I think it just magnifies it because he is such a big part of our offense," said Lynch of Lewis, who is just 59 yards of total offense away from breaking the Hoosier single season record held by Antwaan Randle El who amassed 3,065 yards in 1999.
"We are not one of those traditional offenses where we can get under center and hand the ball off 65 times and throw it 15 and those all be bootleg passes. We have to get the ball in his hands and he has to direct it. I really thought he bounced back and played well."
Ball State cut the margin to seven early in the third quarter when Davis hooked up with Daniel Ifft on a 17-yard scoring play. But Indiana withstood 332-yard passing day for Davis and ended its three-game losing streak. A big reason for their success was the continued dominance of the Hoosier pass rush. The Hoosiers have now recorded a school record 38 sacks on the season.
"That's what we knew we needed to do because Nate (Davis) is a very, very good thrower and he is also a guy that is very good at creating in the pocket," said Lynch. "He's hard guy to blitz because he gets rid of it so well and he finds open guys so we felt like if we could just get four man pressures and keep pressuring…I think our guys did a good job."
Defensive end Greg Middleton remains one of the top pass rushers in the country as he added two sacks to draw within half a sack of the school-record of 14 by Van Waiters in 1987.
"Putting pressure on the quarterback really changes anybody's offense," said Middleton. "You can't sit back there and it will force irrational decisions. It will change a lot of things as long as we can keep getting to them."
It helped the Hoosiers secure two interceptions, but more importantly secured that elusive sixth win the team has been searching for since 1994. While a rough past three weeks has made the Hoosiers bowl plans still questionable, the team says their spirits are buoyed by the big win today and look forward to closing out their schedule strong.
"One of the things that we had talked to the team about coming off the three losses is that we were entering the fourth quarter of the season," said Lynch. "We kind of felt like we won the first half, didn't play very well in the third quarter of the season, the fourth quarter came, we got three games left and good football teams win the fourth quarter."
When asked how he thought former Coach Terry Hoeppner would respond to the Hoosiers becoming bowl eligible on Saturday Lynch didn't hesitate with his response.
"I know exactly what he would say; he would be thrilled for these kids, but he would be looking forward to the next game too," said Lynch. "That was Hep, the eternal optimist. He wouldn't let it stop with the sixth win. We've talked to our kids all year about don't put limitations on yourself and that's strictly Hep.
"I can't wait to play next week. We got to keep it going. This is a good football team."
Hoosiers Top Ball State, Become Bowl Eligible
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