It's hard to see Indiana sitting there as Northwestern's next opponent and not think about the teams' matchup last season. The 2008 IU-NU game was baffling at the time. And as the season wore on, it became even more so.NU went into Bloomington 5-1 and ranked No. 22 in the nation. Indiana, meanwhile, entered that Oct. 25 matchup riding a five-game losing streak, having been outscored 200-78 over that span. Of course, the Hoosiers eked out a 21-19 victory, capitalizing on a handful of Wildcat miscues that included five turnovers – two picks and a trio of fumbles – as well as a missed PAT.
While everyone knew it was strange when it happened, that game became even more of an outlier as the season wore on. Indiana would close out the year with four straight losses, finishing 3-9 and 1-7 in the Big Ten. Northwestern was the Hoosiers' only victory from Sept. 6 (Week 2) all the way to Nov. 22. And what's stranger yet is that Northwestern went on to win three of its final four regular-season games. Go figure.So that flub in Bloomington was a huge, Escalade-sized aberration. Maybe NU was sleeping on the Hoosiers, or maybe IU was due, or maybe it's just impossible to win with five turnovers. But that IU game was one of the most memorable of the entire 2008 campaign – and for all the wrong reasons.
Well, like it or not, Indiana is up again. The Hoosiers are coming to Evanston this weekend to take on the Wildcats. And the disparity between the two teams – both of which are 4-3 and tied for seventh in the conference – doesn't seem as stark this time around – not that it mattered the last time around.To get a better idea of what this Indiana team is all about, Purple Reign is excited to invite in Terry Hutchens, who covers the Hoosiers beat for the Indianapolis Star.
Alright, Terry. Thanks for joining us. Let's start with Indian's trek to Virginia a few weeks ago, a game that resulted in a 47-7 Hoosier loss that seems almost as strange as the NU-IU game last season.When Purple Reign was culling through stats for an article about NU's defense a few weeks back – before the Virginia game – it was startling to see how well Indiana fared in various statistical categories. At the time – after five games – Indiana was No. 5 in the conference in total defense, giving up just 337 yards per game. The Hoosiers were also fifth in pass defense, allowing less than 225 yards per game. And they had already played some Big Boys in Ohio State and Michigan. Not bad.
And then, with a respectable 3-2 record, IU went to play 1-3 Virginia. And everything that seemed to be true about the team evaporated. The Hoosiers trailed 47-0 before putting up a junk-time TD in the fourth quarter. They gave up 536 total yards, 308 passing yards and 47 points to a Virginia team that came in averaging less than 20 points per game. (That game still stands as one of the two times all season that Virginia, 3-3, has scored more than 20 points.)Needless to say, that UVA game blew all of IU's defensive averages out of the water. The Hoosiers dropped to ninth in points allowed, 10th in passing defense, ninth in total defense and dead last in pass efficiency defense. Maybe IU's D was destined for a bit of a regression after its relatively stellar start. But that the unit fell so far, so fast makes it really difficult to gauge what this defense really is: The outfit that gave up just 13 points per game through three weeks while going 3-0? Or the group that gave up at least 33 in each of the next three weeks while going 0-3?
IU was back to its pre-Virginia self last week, rebounding nicely with a 27-14 win over Illinois. But still, that Virginia game raises questions. Mainly: What is the real Indiana team? The one that spanked Akron, beat Illinois and just barely lost to Michigan? Or is it the one that got trounced by Ohio State and was a total no-show against Virginia? Which team is coming to Evanston this weekend?Terry Hutchens: First of all David, as someone who follows Indiana closely you realize early on not to get too excited when IU has football success, even if that success would be relatively minor in the eyes of most college football programs.
Bottom line: Indiana football is Northwestern basketball. The difference is that IU football has played on the postseason big stage a few times but not that many. Remember, this is an Indiana team that had not been to a bowl game since 1993 before the emotion-packed season of 2007 when the Hoosiers were playing for the memory of Terry Hoeppner who died of brain cancer in June of that year. I know that Wildcat fans can relate to that experience having lost Walk the year before. I still remember the ironies of Coach Hep being one of the people who eulogized Coach Walker and then a year later Hep was gone, too. But the point here is that Indiana has had limited success, and just when you think they could be turning the corner, they become Indiana again.I've seen it more than once in the 12 years that I've covered IU. That's what happened in 2008. The year before they go to the Insight Bowl after an emotional win over Purdue in the 2007 Old Oaken Bucket, they get a taste of postseason play albeit a drubbing by Oklahoma State out in Tempe, Ariz., but then they come back with high hopes in '08 and fall on their faces and finish 3-9. As you mentioned above, the only post-Sept. 6 victory was a stunning upset against Northwestern when the Wildcats gave them five gifts, and the Hoosiers still only won by two points.
And that's what happened again with Virginia. IU went into the game 3-2 and it really should have been 4-1. The Hoosiers had the Michigan game within reach. The Wolverines took the lead in the fourth quarter and it looked like Michigan would probably pull away and win comfortably. On the next drive, Darius Willis took off on an 86 yard touchdown run for the Hoosiers and even the most loyal IU fan was thinking, "What is this all about? This is usually roll over time." It was not the typical IU football response after the home team finally takes the lead. Usually, the Hoosiers will try to force something offensively and turn it over and the floodgates open. But this was different. When Michigan held on at the end – with the assistance of a controversial interception call that was reviewed and upheld on the field – IU was 3-2 but feeling pretty good heading to Virginia, a team that was 1-3 and had lost to Division I-AA William & Mary.
It turned out to be a trap game. IU had a few excuses at its disposal. It had a couple of banged up players most notably Willis who didn't play in that game, and several key defensive players had the flu, but they never used that as an excuse. The reality was Virginia was a little better than they looked in the early going and the Cavs continued to show that last week when they beat Maryland on the road to improve to 3-3. And the Hoosiers, well … they were very Hoosier-like. Basically, IU fans get too far up because the boys in Cream and Crimson will bring you back down very quickly. IU had a good first drive and drove deep into Virginia territory and then wide receiver Terrance Turner fumbled and Virginia capitalized and scored. And then they used a big play and scored again and it was quickly a two-touchdown game. Then IU's defense stopped the Cavs three times in a row but the offense could not answer. And then it got ugly. It was 30-0 by the half and the rout was on.When IU has been successful this season, it has used the Wildcat formation with Mitchell Evans in at the quarterback spot. They call it the ‘Wild Mitch', a nickname provided by the Big Ten Network in one of their night-before-game preparation meetings. Against Illinois, the Wild Mitch formation was used a bunch. I haven't counted but it had to be 15 or 16 times. And Evans ran for 84 yards out of it on less than 10 carries. Against Virginia though, IU only used the formation a couple of times. As soon as IU got too far behind, the offense dictated another direction and the Wild Mitch was abandoned.
Offensively, Indiana has the ability to keep the defense off balance with the different formations. Ben Chappell is a capable pocket passer who has made really good decisions this year getting rid of the ball. Evans is the dual threat guy who runs and hands off a lot more than he passes but he can be a good passer, too. He was recruited to IU as an ‘Athlete' but got his first look as a quarterback. Then, in his true freshman season he was moved to safety because of need. He then proceeded to start every game at safety and had a game where he had two picks. As a sophomore, again because of need, he was moved to wide receiver and played there last year. This year he has played mostly wide receiver, but has also ran the Wildcat formations as well.Offensively, Indiana's biggest weapons are its talented receiving corps that include sophomore playmakers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher, along with Turner. The Hoosiers also have a couple of tight ends who can catch the ball in Max Dedmond (who lines up in the slot a lot) and Troy Wagner, who is more of a pass-blocking tight end who caught a big 13-yard TD against Illinois last week. And Willis, though battling ankle and rib injuries, is the best of the running backs. And he's a redshirt freshman which has IU fans hopeful for the future at that position.
As for the question, what is the real Indiana team? Good question. Still unanswered. Let's keep perspective though. IU squeaked by an average Division I-AA team in Eastern Kentucky. It needed a late defensive stop to eek out a win over Western Michigan. The Hoosiers looked better on the road beating Akron. But still, at that point the Hoosiers were 3-0 against non-conference competition. And even when you're picked to finish dead last by every preseason publication as IU was before the 2009 season, you're still expected to fare well against MAC-type competition. Next came Michigan, and they played better than expected but still lost. Ohio State was a 33-14 game but the Hoosiers called timeout with 15 seconds to play because they were trying to score in mop up time against Ohio State's scrubs. And they did score on the final play of the game. But that one was more of a 33-7 game than 33-14.Last week, IU played a bad Illinois team and came away with a huge win for a coaching staff that is at the very least feeling a little warmth under their seats, and a team that had been on a three-game losing streak. This time the score wasn't indicative in a different way. IU drove the field the first two possessions and missed field goals of 32 and 38 yards. Later, leading 13-7, IU went for it on fourth-and-1 at the Illinois 10. Chappell threw a toss sweep to the left to Trea Burgess and he had a lot of green in front of him and probably could have scored. But he cut back at the 10, slipped, and went down for no gain. So those were three scoring chances that IU didn't get. And then, with a little over 6 minutes to play, IU still led 27-7 and gave up some big chunks of prevent defense yardage that didn't help the conference statistical numbers either.
So that's the long answer (I do that a lot) to your basic question. All in all, I think IU is much better than it was a year ago particularly on the defensive side despite what the post-Ohio State/Virginia/Illinois numbers will show. The two defensive ends – Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton – are legit. IU is getting a good push up front from a pair of freshman in Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr. The linebackers are experienced including Matt Mayberry who has had six games in a row with at least 10 tackles. You have two experienced fifth-year senior safeties in Nick Polk and Austin Thomas and a good play-making corner in Ray Fisher, who played wide receiver for three years and was moved to DB this season. Overall, it's a group that get stops. It gets ample pressure and is a little better than advertised.How will the defense fare this week against the ‘Cats? Good question. Still unanswered. This, after all, is still Indiana.
Purple Reign: Well, that pretty much covers it, doesn't it? Sounds like this team is still a bit of a mystery. Or at least it's a mystery which squad will show up on game day. That's the way it looked from the outside, so it's interesting to have confirmation from someone in-the-know that that's the case.
Wildcat fans will be hoping for the sleepwalking version – the one that no-showed against Virginia – because the Cats really can't afford another loss. NU still has to tangle with Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin. And while the Illinois game on Nov. 14 will probably be a win – if for no other reason because of how decrepit Illinois has been this year – it's going to be hard to steal Ws from the Hawkeyes, Nittany Lions or Badgers. And with bowl eligibility considered a given heading into the season, beating the Hoosiers is an important step toward making sure the 2009 campaign doesn't go down as a bowl-less failure. And a season without a bowl would likely be deemed a failure by most.
(That's not necessarily a bad thing. You could put a spin on it and say that if the program is healthy enough to absolutely expect bowls, then that's progress. That is, however, a pretty flowery assessment.)Actually, come to think of it, Indiana has pretty much an identical schedule from here on out: Iowa, Wisconsin and Penn State the next three weeks, and then a season-ending trip to rival Purdue. Indeed, it looks like Northwestern might go down as one of IU's most winnable remaining games, and thus a very important one in breaking the six-win plane of bowl eligibility. The other game that looks winnable for IU is Purdue, but the Boilers just downed OSU, plus it's in West Lafayette, plus that's a rivalry game. So who knows. But if the Hoosiers want to go bowling, they're probably going to need this one against Northwestern.
And if the Wildcats want to go bowling – and god knows they do – then they'll need to beat the Hoosiers.Big thanks again to Terry Hutchens of the Indy Star. As always, you can reach Purple Reign at firstname.lastname@example.org.