For roughly the first 50 minutes of the game, Indiana-Navy played out the way I hoped it would. The Midshipmen were improved from their early season struggles, but IU's offense seemed to overwhelm the Navy defense, and the Hoosiers, with a nine point lead, appeared to be in the driver's seat. Unfortunately, Navy then rallied with a long drive for a field goal to pull within six with 5:30 remaining. When IU desperately needed to run the clock and to get a couple of first downs to put Navy on the ropes, the Hoosiers produced their worst possession of the day. A busted play on first down for an incomplete pass. A 7 yard completion to give IU third and three. A busted play on third down that resulted in yet another incompletion. In short, it was IU's second three-and-out of the day and ran only 38 seconds off the clock. Navy then drove down for the lead, and that was that.
I'm not going to second-guess Wilson for not going into a shell and running up the gut three times in a row there. I said in the game thread that I didn't think IU had to go super conservative there. But man oh man, if a team is going to decide to throw the ball there, it has to work. And for whatever reason, on two of the three plays on that possession, the guys weren't on the same page. That's bad. I'm also hesitant to second guess the quarterback rotation. Bitching about which QB is playing is the refuse of the ignorant. But Wilson has said that Nate Sudfeld is going to play. He has played him when the Hoosiers have been way behind. I understand that he doesn't want to undercut Coffman's confidence, and I don't necessarily want to see a mindless QB rotation like Purdue seems to have always had under Danny Hope. But while Coffman has been very solid, he hasn't be infallible, and he is the starter by necessity, not because he won the job coming out of camp. I don't want Coffman looking over his shoulder, but it seems to me that it would have made sense to give Sudfeld a couple of series in the first half. I don't think it is typical kvetching about the backup QB when the head coach says both guys will play and then both guys don't play.
As I said, the major frustration is that IU was, on multiple occasions, in a position where the game could have been put away, particularly in the first half, when IU had the ball with a 17-7 lead but let Navy back into the game with a deflected pick six. During Navy's long drive that trimmed IU's lead from 30-21 to 30-24, the Hoosiers failed to fall on a Navy fumble that would have put IU in an excellent position. On a couple of occasions, Navy scoring drives were aided by senseless scoring drives. I usually talk about statistics in these post game posts. I don't really have the energy to do so today. Here's the box score. The numbers reflect what it was like to watch the game: IU could have won, but the mistakes were too much.
I'm having a tough time putting a positive gloss on this one. Yes, this is a young team. Yes, IU has been competitive in every game this year, win or lose. Of course, it's too early to give up on this coaching staff or this roster. But there is no good excuse for what happened yesterday. We could excuse the Ball State loss because it was early in the season and the team was regrouping after losing its key player, QB Tre Roberson. We could excuse the failure to hold a lead against MSU because MSU is a much more talented and experienced team. But this game? Look, given the way that Navy fans have conducted themselves here this week (hint: as poorly as any fan base I have dealt with in 5 seasons of blogging--even hated rivalys like Purdue and Kentucky aren't uniformly nasty and condescending), I'm sure there will be some objections in the comments, but this is a game that IU should have won. Nothing that I saw on the field makes me think that AJ and I were wrong about what should have happened. Navy is a better team that in September. They're also a worse team than they were four years ago. This is a disappointment and a wasted opportunity.
Could this season be a sign of a better future? Sure. IU is meaningfully better in 2012 than in 2011. If that trend continues, then eventually the wins will come. On the other hand, the cautionary tale is Cameron Cameron's second season, 1998. After an ugly first season, IU improved to 4-7/2-6, but the most memorable games of the last season were the close calls. IU nearly beat a really good Kentucky team with Tim Couch, lost in OT at Michigan State when Nick Saban was the coach, and played eventual Big Ten champ Wisconsin very closely in Bloomington. At the time, I and other IU fans believed it was a positive sign for the future. Instead, it turned out that Cam's future teams usually made enough mistakes to lose. Again, I'm not down on Wilson, and he brings more experience to the table than did Cam (who had never been a coordinator, let alone a head coach, before coming to IU). But I don't think we can simply assume that these close losses are going to turn into close wins. At some point, IU is going to have to turn the corner, and yesterday was a great time to do so.
Again, Navy deserves a ton of credit. To some degree, yesterday's game was a microcosm of the Middies' season. They looked dead early, but fought back, and made big plays where IU is making mistakes.
Now, it's on to Illinois. I don't have much optimism left, but the Illini are really struggling.