IU DE Greg Middleton vs. EKU LT Derek Hardman – if Indiana is going to have a chance of improving significantly on last year's 3-9 record, Coach Bill Lynch believes he's going to need big seasons out his seniors. One of the seniors that could have a huge hand in a turnaround is Middleton.
Middleton's story has been well chronicled, going from an NCAA-best 16 sacks in 2007 to only four in 2008. But by all accounts, Middleton worked extremely hard in the weight room in the off-season and appears re-focused on returning to his sophomore season form. If he can do that, he and Jammie Kirlew form a defensive end tandem that is capable of combining for 20-plus sacks this season.
Middleton will likely be matched up with the 6'6", 300-pound Hardman, a three-year starter who is probably the premiere player on the Colonels' roster. If Middleton can win this head-to-head battle and put some pressure on EKU QB Cody Watts, it will be a very good sign about what fans can expect from Middleton once the schedule turns more difficult.
IU WR Damarlo Belcher vs. EKU Secondary – Keep on eye on the 6'5" Belcher and see just how ready he is to become a legitimate No. 1 Big Ten wide receiver. He's coming off a big fall camp and he has all the tools to assume that role, combining tremendous size with great hands and the ability to make difficult catches in traffic.
Belcher will going up against a Colonel secondary that doesn't have anyone that can match up with Belcher physically. Starting corners Jeremy Caldwell (5-10, 172) and Andre Evans (5-10, 167) both give up seven inches and 30 pounds to Belcher, and free safety Robert Dees (5-11, 173) isn't much bigger. Expect to see Eastern Kentucky rely on plenty of zone coverages in an effort to keep Belcher from putting up big numbers.
IU RBs Demetrius McCray vs. Darius Willis vs. Trea Burgess vs. Bryan Payton - after fall camp provided very little separation between the Hoosiers' top four running backs, it comes as little surprise that all four are expected to play in Thursday's opener. Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis figure to be the tailbacks of choice during the first handful of offensive series, but Burgess and Payton will get their share of carries as well, particularly if IU opens a comfortable lead by the time the second half rolls around.
With that in mind, Thursday's game will provide another opportunity for each of the tailbacks to show off their skills and potentially re-shuffle the running back deck for next week's Western Michigan game. The running back depth chart remains fluid, and a big performance could easily change the order that they're used. While big plays from any of the backs would be welcomed, keep an eye on which of the running backs has the most success in 3rd-and-short situations. IU was woeful at moving to chains in those situations last season, and it needs to be better at that this season.
On Monday – Five Numbers to Note
On Monday – Four Names to Know
On Tuesday – Three Key Match-Ups
On Wednesday – Two Big Concerns
On Thursday – One Bold Prediction
EKU: Three Key Match-Ups
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