Bloomington - The third time wasn't a charm for the Hoosiers Saturday.
While there were plenty of things that contributed to Indiana's 16-7 loss at Minnesota Saturday, the most glaring issue in Bill Lynch's mind is what happened on third down.
Indiana was stopped nine of its 10 third down attempts, with the only successful conversion coming early in the fourth quarter on an 18-yard completion to Mitchell Evans on a 3rd-and-13. That successful attempt, though, was made irrelevant three plays later when Andrew Means dropped a pass along the sidelines on a 3rd-and-11 that would have given IU a first down inside the Gopher 25-yard line.
Minnesota, by contrast, converted 8-of-19 on its third down attempts. Two of those came on its final drive when the Gophers mounted a 15-play drive that chewed up more than seven minutes off the clock. That drive culminated with a Joel Monroe field goal that gave the Gophers a nine-point lead with less than 30 seconds play and secured their first Big Ten win since 2006.
"If you take what they did on third down versus what we did on third down, that was probably the most revealing statistic from the game," Lynch said.
It's been a problem for the Hoosiers all season. Indiana has converted only 20-of-65 third downs this season, which ranks tenth in the Big Ten. In their last two games, the Hoosiers are just 5-of-24 in losses to Michigan State and Minnesota.
Against the Gophers, it contributed significantly to a huge time of possession discrepancy, with Minnesota holding the ball for nearly 38 minutes. That's another category IU ranks near the bottom of the conference standings, coming in ninth with 27:16 per contest.
"It has to be a point of emphasis," Lynch said. "Offensively in some cases we need to be in better third down situations…that has a lot to do with it. Minnesota did a nice job of keeping themselves of not being third and long a lot.
"We got ourselves in too many third and longs the last couple of weeks, particularly in the second half."
If there was some good news to come out of the Minnesota game, it was that both Nick Polk and Austin Thomas were back on the field at safety after being sidelined by recent injuries. Polk missed the Michigan State game with a knee injury, while Thomas missed the last two games with a foot.
Neither started against the Gophers, but Thomas came off the bench to record nine tackles, while Polk did the same and chipped eight stops, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble. As Indiana prepares for Saturday's match-up against Iowa, both figure to be back in the starting lineup.
"Nick Polk and Austin Thomas are in good shape, practiced hard (Monday)," Lynch said.
Also back at practice were linebacker Will Patterson, offensive lineman Dennis Zeigler and safety Jerimy Finch. Patterson left the Minnesota game late after taking a hit from teammate Geno Johnson on a tackle, but appears to be back to full speed.
Finch, meanwhile, was back at practice in a limited capacity after injuring his foot against Michigan State. The same goes for Zeigler, who has was getting more time at right guard in recent weeks before getting injured against Michigan State.
"I don't know (about Zeigler)," Lynch said. "He was out there yesterday, but he's not full speed right now."
Indiana played only two true freshmen to this point in wide receivers Demarlo Belcher and Tandon Doss. But there's a possibility that a third could wind up getting a chance to show what he can do as well.
Lynch said that offensive tackle Justin Pagan is a potential contributor for the remaining seven games of the regular season. While starting tackles Rodger Saffold and Mike Stark are still expected to start, Saffold continues to nurse a back ailment. That could result in Pagan getting some work as a third offensive tackle.
"We're prepared to play him at this point," Lynch said. "He's good, he's gotten better, too. We've been a little banged up on the offensive line…we have seven games left, so we're prepared to go ahead and play him if the situation calls for it."
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