A season that began with optimism but is fairly grim right now enters its next phase when IU hosts Penn State on Saturday. Indiana enters the Big Ten season with only one win. That's the lowest total since IU entered conference play 0-2 in 2001 (the Kentucky game was postponed because of the September 11 attacks and played on the first weekend in December). IU's only win came against an FCS opponent; a good FCS opponent, but physically overmatched nonetheless. We know where IU's record stands: 1-3 with a decent chance of mathematical elimination from postseason play before the leaves fall.
The individual offensive stats really aren't all that bad. Edward Wright-Baker hasn't stepped into Ben Chappell's shoes, exactly, but he also hasn't been a disaster. He has completed 62 percent of his passes. That's roughly the same completion percentage that Ben Chappell had in each of his past two seasons. While Wright-Baker has fumbled too much, he has only two interceptions and has thrown four touchdown passes. He is averaging 231 yards per game and 7.2 years per attempt. Neither of those numbers is overwhelming, but the latter is better than Chappell ever did. I certainly don't mean to oversell Wright-Baker's performance. Anyone who has watched him knows that he has struggled at times, that he has thrown some balls directly to defenders that were dropped, and that his numbers are inflated by a really good performance against FCS South Carolina State. He hasn't been great, but he isn't flailing. After Dusty Kiel's performance in the fourth quarter against North Texas, I suspect that we will see some of both quarterbacks against Penn State on Sunday. But it's far from clear that Kiel will be a dramatic upgrade or that Wright-Baker is what ails this team.
At running back, no one has truly grabbed the primary job. D'Angelo Roberts, the true freshman from Bloomington North, leads the team with 187 yards rushing, but again, over half of those yards came against South Carolina State. Matt Perez and Stephen Houston have had their moments (Perez, in particular, with 4 touchdowns) but no running back has truly excelled. Of course, Wilson is going with a number of true freshmen on the offensive line, so these struggles may continue, and it has been years since IU has managed to establish any sort of between-the-tackles running game. Receiver was expected to be IU's most talented and deep position, and that has held true. Four IU receivers (Damarlo Belcher, Kofi Hughes, Dre Muhammad, and Duwyce Wilson) have at least 12 receptions, but none has more than 14. Hughes, in particular, has been gold when he touches the ball: Hughes has 53 yards rushing on 3 attempts and is averaging 15.5 yards per reception.
On defense, linebacker Jeff Thomas has picked up where he left off against Purdue last year. He leads IU with 31 tackles and 5 tackles for loss. Unfortunately, after Thomas, IU's next five leading tacklers are defensive backs. While IU has recorded 16 tackles for loss, Fred Jones, with one, is the only Hoosier with a sack this season.
IU's overall FBS rankings are not horrible, but they are below average. According to Sagarin, IU's 1-3 record has come against the #124 schedule in all of Division I. That's the worst part of all. IU should have a talent advantage against three of the four teams on the shedule, and Virginia seems destined for another rough season in the ACC. Still, IU is allowing 4.4 yards per rush and gaining only 3.6; we're dead even on turnover margin, which is not a bad thing but means that we're 1-3 because the teams that beat us were better than us, not because of improbable bounces, etc. If anything, we have gotten the breaks during second half comebacks against Virginia and North Texas.
At this point in the season, the ugliest statistic is 1-3. The defense has been visibly bad, but the performances have been troubling mostly because of the supposed level of competition. We couldn't stop Ball State's inexperienced running backs. We couldn't shut down South Carolina State. On the other side of the ball, we couldn't score on North Texas before the fourth quarter.
There's not much I can say that is objectively encouraging. IU likely will be an underdog in all of its remaining games, with Northwestern and Purdue the only games in which IU might have an edge, depending on how those teams' seasons transpire. The only solace is that if college football were predictable, who would watch? IU's losses to North Texas and to Ball State are IU's worst losses since 2006, when IU lost at home to FCS Southern Illinois. That 2006 team, which was Terry Hoeppner's second and last, ended up 3-5 in the Big Ten, with an upset of a ranked Iowa team, a 46-21 beatdown of Michigan State that was not as close as the score suggests (IU ran off 44 unanswered in that game), and a great comeback against Illinois in Champaign that ended with Austin Starr's game-winning field goal at the gun. I'm not drawing a direct comparison. The 2006 team was more talented than this squad, and Hoeppner was in the second year of his rebuilding effort. Still, there are some parallels, including an unsettled quarterback situation. I said before the season that I thought we would lose some games we shouldn't lose and win some we shouldn't win. Now that I've been proven half-right, hopefully the Hoosier can provide us with some reason for optimism during the next eight games.