Big Ten Game Preview: Indiana

After a tough test to begin the Big Ten season against Illinois, Ohio State will find itself in a familiar situation: on the road in enemy territory at night. But the confines of Indiana's Memorial Stadium have often been friendly to the Buckeyes in the past. Will 2009 be any different? BuckeyeSports.com looks ahead at a rebuilding Indiana team.

Indiana
Oct. 3, Memorial Stadium (Bloomington, Ind.)
Head coach Bill Lynch
2008 record: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten (last)

Indiana's inspired run to a bowl game in 2007 was followed by a resounding thud as the Hoosiers returned to the bottom of the conference. Powered by a new offense, Bill Lynch's charges will try to rebound.

What We Know: Indiana returns a boatload of starters, including some players who have made big impacts in the past. That is especially true on the defensive side of the ball, which returns eight starters (some of whom have been impact players in the past) and brings another over from the offense. The Hoosiers also think they have a solid stable of running backs, who will perform behind an offensive line that returns a number of starters.

Major Questions: Will that new offensive identity thrive after the Hoosiers spent three years running a spread offense that was designed around the talents of the since-departed Kellen Lewis? Does that experienced defense have enough talent to hang with the best the Big Ten has to offer after finishing last in the league?

Offensive Overview: With Lewis gone and Ben Chappell in charge of the offense, Lynch has overseen a change from the spread to an offense based on running the football. Indiana has four running backs it thinks highly of, and those four will be charged with making the offense go. In addition, there was much talk during the spring about Indiana's move to the pistol offense that Nevada has used so well over the past few seasons.

No matter what the Hoosiers do, things will be different without Lewis, who made the squad into a rising team in 2006 and a bowl participant in '07. His stamp was also all over the 2008 team; he was kept out of spring practice, and that set the tone for a team that ended up struggling from the opening game.

The Hoosiers belong to Chappell now, and the junior will have to improve after an inconsistent 2008 campaign. He saw time at quarterback in nine of 12 games, throwing more than 10 passes in six of them, and was 80 for 153 for 1,001 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.

The lack of a big-play passing game was obvious overall for the Hoosiers without NFL draft pick James Hardy, and Chappell completed just 52.9 percent of his passes on the year while averaging 12.5 yards per completion and 6.5 yards per attempt. Take out a 6-for-7 performance against Murray State and Chappell's completion percentage was barely above 50 percent.

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has said that Chappell's accuracy is impressive, but he'll have a lot to prove once the season begins.

The big news out of Indiana's camp has been its dedication to the running game for the '09 season, but running the football hasn't been the Hoosiers' bright spot over the past few seasons.

The Hoosiers were 11th in the Big Ten in rushing in 2006, then improved to eighth during the bowl season and sixth last year. However, the improvements were largely because of the spread offense and Lewis' ability to run from the quarterback position.

In 2007, Lewis was responsible for a team-best 56.6 yards per game. A year ago, he ran for 50.0 yards per game in the 10 he was part of. Overall, Indiana ran for 166.9 yards per game.

But the leading rusher, Marcus Thigpen, is gone after finally realizing much of his promise as a senior while averaging 52.6 yards per game. The speedster was a big-play threat once he got outside, busting off runs of 50 or more yards in four games.

The backs Indiana will be counting on are largely unproven but provide size and depth. Bryan Payton has 756 career rushing yards to lead the way, followed by Demetrius McCray with 672 yards and four touchdowns. But after 6.3 yards per carry in 2007, McCray fell to 3.6 last season.

The Hoosiers really like redshirt freshman Darius Willis, who stands 6-0 and holds 219 pounds. Willis was a three-star prospect in 2008 according to Scout and boasts impressive speed to go with his big frame. Also in the mix is 6-1, 226-pounder Trea Burgess.

How that group will fare could be up to an offensive line that was beset by injuries a season ago, starting seven different combinations including diverging units during each of the last six games. Most people think that left tackle Rodger Saffold is among the best in the league after having spent the past three years as the team's anchor on the line, and all but one of the nine players who made at least one start a year ago are expected to play this season.

Wide receiver was another problem point, where Ray Fisher and Andrew Means were the top two players in both receptions and yards. Means is now gone to pro baseball and Fisher has been moved to defensive back.

That move was prompted by the talents possessed by what could be a deep group of receivers. At 6-3, Tandon Doss has lots of talent after making 14 catches as a freshman last year. The top returning wideout is Terrence Turner, who is also 6-3, the same height as toolsy junior Mitchell Evans. Turner had 29 catches last year, and Evans is a converted quarterback.

An intriguing prospect is 6-5 DaMarlo Belcher, who had 25 catches last year and averaged 13.5 yards per catch, most of any wideout with 10 or more grabs. However, no Hoosier receiver has proven that he has the ability to be a No. 1, go-to target.

The stats show just how far Indiana's offense has to go, though, to be effective. Indiana was last in the league in red-zone appearances and second-to-last in third-down conversions. In addition, the Hoosiers scored just six points on 12 opening drives during the year.

Canada says the Hoosiers have better depth than they have had in a long time, but finding a breakout star or two was difficult last year and will be hard this year. Willis could step up and become one of the Big Ten's better backs, but it's still hard to predict a big jump forward from the passing attack given the question marks at quarterback and wideout.

Key To The Season (Off): Everything from Chappell's development to the focus on the running game will be made easier by progress from the offensive line. Injuries were an excuse last season, but that allowed plenty of people to earn playing time. That depth and experience has to pay dividends for Indiana to get where it wants to go.

Defensive Overview: Indiana made 30 sacks last year, good for fifth in the league. That was about all the Hoosiers did well a season ago.

Indiana was 10th in the league in rushing defense and 11th in passing, passing efficiency and scoring defense against. Teams had 33 more first downs against IU than they did against any other squad, got into the red zone a Big Ten-most 59 times (scoring on 52 of those trips) and converted a shocking 46.8 percent of their third downs.

All that happened despite the fact that Indiana entered the season with seven starters (although two, safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk, were hurt and missed time) returning from a unit that had played passably well in 2007, giving up 30 less yards and 7 less points per game while finishing eighth or ninth in the league in most categories.

The injuries to the safeties didn't help. The Hoosiers finished the campaign with just six interceptions while giving up 20 passing touchdowns. Thomas was already out by the Central Michigan game in week nine, and Polk saw his season come to an end with that contest. The Chippewas threw for four touchdowns in that game, a prelude to the season finale in which moribund Purdue torched the Hoosiers for five scores and 479 yards through the air.

Polk and Thomas are set to return from their ACL injuries, though the opening weeks remain a doubt as they rehab. Indiana should be able to get some playing time out of Jerimy Finch, a Florida transfer who returned to his home state for personal reasons after a year at UF.

Indiana will hope to help the back end of the defense with what could be one of the best pass rushes in the conference if the duo of Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton are ready to make some noise coming off the end. Teams will be tested by the two possible NFL talents, as Kirlew had 10.5 sacks a season ago and Middleton totaled a national-best 16 sacks in 2007 before posting a disappointing '08 season. He was impressive in the spring, though, and his 285-pound frame can also work at tackle, a spot that is weak for IU.

Kirlew also had nine tackles for loss last year that weren't sacks and 76 total stops, showing his ability to play in all situations.

At linebacker, Indiana has two solid players in Matt Mayberry, a fast, athletic middle player who had 89 tackles last year, and Will Patterson, who made 55 stops and 8.5 TFL before a knee injury ended his season.

Indiana also has a solid third option in Ohioan Tyler Replogle, who quietly made 38 stops a season ago.

Key To The Season (Def): Big players have to make big plays in big games. Players like Mayberry, Middleton, Kirlew and Thomas have to step up and lead a unit that has some nice filler pieces in some places and holes in others.

Special Teams: The punting game will be solid in the hands of Chris Hagerup, who averaged more than 42 yards per kick last season while earning second-team freshman All-America honors from numerous publications. The story is different at kicker, where 2007 hero Austin Starr was mediocre last year before graduating. Observers say to watch out for strong-legged freshman Mitch Ewald, who could step in and earn the job immediately.

The return game will be a question mark now that Thigpen has graduated, but McCray boasts many of the same attributes that made his predecessor one of the better return men in the conference. Fisher averaged 9.6 yards per punt return last season and has the talent to break some big runs.

New Name To Know: WR Duwyce Wilson, 6-2.5, 183, Columbus (Ind.) East – Wilson is Scout.com's only four-star recruit in Indiana's 2009 class, and it's easy to see why. The centerpiece of Indiana's recruiting efforts this past year, Wilson boasts both size and athleticism – evidenced by his state title in the long jump. He caught 53 passes last year and could get a look amongst a toolsy group of Indiana wideouts.

Best Case Scenario: The offense takes to its new running attack, the defense plays up to par and the Hoosiers sneak up on a few teams on the way to earning bowl eligibility.

Worst Case Scenario: Indiana has an Indiana-type season. The talent deficit between it and the Big Ten's top teams proves too much to overcome, a few nonleague losses (perhaps against Western Michigan and Virginia) are thrown in and the team settles into the bottom of the standings.

OSU Game: Indiana will do its best to pull out all the stops for what will be a night game in Bloomington. The Hoosiers will hope to have a large home crowd in its recently expanded stadium, but the late start could just give a traditionally large pro-OSU contingent time to make its way to the stadium with plenty of party time to spare.

No matter what happens over the opening few weeks, Ohio State will be favored in this game, probably by a lot of points. The Buckeyes will have a decided talent edge on both sides of the ball.

Indiana should have enough players to keep the game interesting, but Ohio State has had the Hoosiers' number, putting together seven straight wins at Indiana and 14 overall. Expecting anything less than a Buckeye victory would be folly.


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