Fresh off becoming bowl eligible for the sixth straight season, Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) will host the Indiana Hoosiers (5-3, 2-3) who are looking to appear in their first bowl game since 1993.
From the moment he stepped on campus in 2005, popular Indiana head coach Terry Hoeppner wanted to breathe the enthusiasm back into Indiana football.
After the Hoosiers finished 2-9 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten in his first season, Hoeppner coined the phrase ‘play 13,' focusing his efforts on getting Indiana to a bowl game for the first since playing in the Independence Bowl 14 years ago.
With 49 true or redshirt freshmen on the roster and 72 underclassmen overall in 2006, the Hoosiers came tantalizingly close to achieving that goal, finishing 5-7 overall and 3-5 in conference, missing out on bowl-eligible by one victory.
Hoeppner, who lost his battle with brain cancer on June 19, will surely be watching over his team the next four weeks, as the Hoosiers need to win just one of their last four games to gain bowl eligibility.
"Obviously it is difficult not having him around," said head coach Bill Lynch, who was named interim head coach before Hoeppner died. "It is hard on all of us because, first and foremost, we lost a great friend, as well as a great coach and mentor. The players lost their leader."
Not having to bring in a new coaching staff (Lynch had been the assistant head coach since 2005) and retaining the majority of its offensive playmakers helped, as Indiana stormed out of the gates, winning five of its first six games to begin this season.
"It hasn't been hard to maintain (focus) because the foundation of this program was set by 'Hoep' and we all as a staff came with him and have been with him and certainly believe in the system and believe in what he brought," Lynch said.
Hoeppner brought over the spread offense to Indiana from Miami (Ohio) and Lynch has stuck with the multi-tooled attack, allowing players like quarterback Kellen Lewis to flourish.
Through eight games, the sophomore is averaging 244 passing yards per game, throwing for 19 passing touchdowns, the number two mark in the league, and six interceptions. Lewis is also the team's leading rusher, rushing for an additional 59.5 rushing yards and five scores.
Lewis is turnover prone, however, as last week's loss to Penn State showed his youth. Despite throwing for over 300 yards and three scores, Lewis fumbled three times, the third coming in the last minute to seal the Hoosiers' fate.
Even so, Indiana's offense frustrated Penn State, something Wisconsin was unsuccessful doing.
"We gained 300-plus yards against Penn State and they've been giving up about 240," Lynch said. "We scored 31 points, and it was the most points they'd given up in the Big Ten since 2003. So, here we are going boy, we're doing some things right."
Following up stellar freshman and sophomore campaigns (catching 112 passes for 1,615 yards and 20 touchdowns), junior James Hardy continued to impress. Hardy has already caught 45 passes (16 away from his career high) and a career-high 11 touchdowns. Against Penn State, Hardy caught 14 passes for 142 yards and two scores in the loss to Penn State.
The 6-7, 220 pound receiver poses huge problems for opposing cornerbacks, averaging 16.6 yards per catch.
"We know that he's a tremendous football player," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "We've got to understand where he's at at all times and be able to defend the situation."
Both Hardy and Lewis' development has been a key to a spread offense that ranks second in the conference in scoring, averaging 35.4 points per game, which is a testament to the players Hoeppner brought into Indiana.
"His stamp is all over this program," Lynch said. "Our job is to carry it on and to continue to improve, which is what he'd want us to do."
Indiana (5-3) vs. Wisconsin (6-2)
Date/Time - Saturday, Oct. 27, at 11:07 a.m CDT
Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium, Madison (FieldTurf / 80,321)
Television - Big Ten Network (Wayne Larrivee, Charles Davis, Charissa Thompson)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 33-18-2
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 52-17, on Sept. 30, 2006 in Bloomington
Saturday will be the 100th Homecoming game at Wisconsin. The Badgers are 50-44-5 on Homecoming, including 8-2 against Indiana. The last time UW faced Indiana on Homecoming, UW won 59-0 on October 16, 1999.
The Huskies totaled -13 yards on the ground, which was the second-lowest rushing total for a Wisconsin opponent in history, trailing only Iowa's -18 rushing total on November 17, 1951.
UW has won the last two meetings by a combined total of 93-41.
Joe Palcic, son of UW offensive line coach Bob Palcic is the co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach for the Hoosiers.
Wisconsin's play action pass has given the Hoosiers plenty of headaches over the last two meetings. The Badgers combined for 93 points, throwing for 604 yards and six touchdowns in two wins.
Indiana's run defense hasn't been that stellar either (sound familiar?). Indiana allowed Michigan State to run for 368 yards on 67 carries in a 52-27 MSU victory.
This will be an offensive shooting with defense optional. I give the edge to Wisconsin because they are at home and its defense was dominant last week (granted, the opponent made the difference. Even though Indiana is the better team offensively, Wisconsin wins a squeaker.