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Ball State 27, Indiana 20: tough start for the Wilson era.

Here are the stats.  Unfortunately, the stats and second-hand reports, plus 120 seconds of highlights, are all that I have to go on for how IU's 27-20 season-opening loss to Ball State went. (Yes, I know you were all waiting for my detailed analysis of IU's run-blocking scheme and various other intricacies of line play).   I was out of town and unable to watch the game live, and ESPN3 won't cooperate, or at least wouldn't until today, and I'm not going to devote a chunk of the workday to this dog.   Everything I have read suggests that if I watched the whole thing, I would see IU being pushed around in the trenches, especially on defense, by a middle-of-the-pack MAC team with a new coach and staff of its own.  I would see IU's offense score only three points in the second half, and even those came in desperation time.  Most disturbingly, I would have seen Ball State, with a 7 point lead early in the fourth quarter, mount an 80-yard drive in which all but 6 yards came on the ground, a drive that culminated in a Cardinal field goal that extended the BSU lead to 10 points.  All of the rushing yards were accounted for by players who had never before seen the field in college and by Keith Wenning, a quarterback not known for his running ability.  Also, I would have seen Wenning, who completed only 54 percent of his passes last season, complete 23-29 against the Hoosiers.  In short, my weekend trip and my fussy computer might have been blessings.

So, what does this mean for the Kevin Wilson era?  Not much.  There has been a lot of hope about this season, based upon the resumes of Wilson and his assistants and the fact that IU, at 5-7 last season, wasn't that far away.  Still, I think we also knew that this season could be a long one.   And if it is, what does it mean?  Again, not all that much.  Bill Mallory went 0-11 in his first season at Indiana.  In his fourth season, he beat Michigan and Ohio State.  Barry Alvarez went 1-10 in his first season at Wisconsin.  In year 4, he went to the Rose Bowl.  Bill Snyder went 1-10 in his first season at Kansas State.  In year 5, he went 9-2-1. Also, consider that Saturday's loss was IU's most disappointing since the Hoosiers lost to I-AA Southern Illinois in 2006.  That IU team ended up beating Iowa and Michigan State.  Joe Tiller's first Purdue team shocked the college football world by going 9-3 when Purdue hadn't had a winning season in 13 years.  Purdue famously beat Notre Dame in its second game that year, but only after losing to Toledo by a couple of touchdowns in week one.

I don't mean to be a pollyana.  A bad first season doesn't guarantee a good career.  Cam Cameron and Gerry Dinardo prove that.  Everything I have seen and heard about the game is troubling.  Still, it would be foolish to give up on this team or this program despite Saturday's disappointment. Many programs in better shape than IU's have lost to MAC programs.  For many years, IU, for all its faults, was as good as anyone in the Big Ten at taking care of business against the MAC.  From the late 1970s through 2008, IU won 20 in a row against the MAC.  Unfortunately, from 2008 to present, thanks to the 2008 losses to Ball State and Central Michigan, IU is 3-3 in its last six against the MAC.

So, what do I notice from the stats?  Here are my thoughts, with no particular organization or order.

  • Edward Wright-Baker wasn't overmatched in his first meaningful playing time.  He played better in the first half than in the second half, and demonstrated nice arm strength on his 65-yard touchdown pass to Damarlo Belcher (I saw that much).
  • Stephen Houston averaged 4.6 per carry in his first college action, and while Matt Perez was less effective, he did have a nice TD run. 
  • Wright-Baker was able to spread the ball around. Eight Hoosiers caught at least one pass.
  • Dre Muhammad, starting in place of the injured Duwyce Wilson, caught 6 passes for 68 yards. 
  • Shane Wynn averaged over 20 yards per kickoff return in his debut.
  • While his passing numbers were solid, Wright-Baker's 10 rushes for 12 yards, plus 4 sacks, are troubling.
  • Mitch Ewald was solid again, making all four of his kicks and tying his career long with a 49 yard field goal.
  • I have watched bits and pieces of the game, and not once in my less-than-comprehensive view did I see an IU pass rusher anywhere near Wenning.  He wasn't sacked, and the ability of Ball State's o-line to push IU's defensive front around seems to be the most decisive and troubling aspect of the game. 
  • Overall, based on what little I saw, IU's defense was lacking in just about every way.  Ball State ran the ball effectively, especially on the clock-killing final drive.  Wenning was very efficient passing the ball.  The Hoosiers recorded only 2 tackles for loss compared to 9 for Ball State.  IU broke up only one pass. 
  • Darius Johnson, IU's best defensive end, did not play on Saturday for undisclosed reasons.  Based on Wilson's willingness to discuss discipline (such as the Darius Willis situation) and injuries, I'm guessing that this is some sort of personal issue. 

Unfortunately, this places IU in a must-win situation on Saturday when the Virginia Cavaliers come to town for Kevin Wilson's home debut.  As I said before the season, any hope for a bowl bid depended on IU a) taking care of business against Ball State, South Carolina State, and North Texas; and b) finding three wins against Virginia, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue.  Already, IU has failed at the first part.  If IU loses to Virginia, then it becomes very difficult to even imagine a scenario that gets IU to 6-6.  A bowl game always seemed like a long shot for this team, but to have the idea all but thwarted before mid-September?  That would be disappointing.  In any event, it's best to move on from Saturday's disappointment and hope that IU can mount an improbable performance this weekend.