After experiencing a few weeks of Big Ten football, the East division looks a lot more open at the top than was expected at the start of the season. With a few breaks, and a lot of hard work, IU could find itself in the mix to represent the East in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis at the end of the season. Now, for your viewing pleasure, here's an early look at what Indiana has to do to make it to Indy.
No Defensive Letdowns
Giving up 571 yards of offense to Bowling Green (a good mid-major team, but one that can be handled with far more ease; just ask Wisconsin) is awful. Even in the face of that, Indiana nearly escaped with a win from that game. They won't be so lucky against the vast majority of the Big Ten. Allow a Big Ten offense to pile up that many yards, and you have a situation like IU-Michigan in 2013, where 47 points is good, but 63 is better. The defense must be ready, must be able to make stops in key situations, and must be able to keep points off the board. Holding teams to field goals is good. Against some opponents, it will even be enough to win. However, giving Ohio State and Michigan State 3 points on every possession adds up, and unless you're matching every drive they make point for point or better, it isn't a winning formula. To win the Big Ten East, the Indiana defense will have to show that they can force opposing teams to end drives without points. String enough 0s together, and let the offense do the rest.
Keep Nate Comfortable
Conventional wisdom says the quarterback is the leader of the offense. He triggers the snap, he is (usually) the one who completes passes, and he makes the offense move. If the quarterback doesn't feel comfortable in the pocket, bad things tend to happen on offense. Nate Sudfeld is an excellent quarterback, but if he isn't having a good day, the Indiana offense tends to struggle. Building a strong rapport with his receiving core is important, but it takes time. The offense is getting there, so it falls heavily on the shoulders of the offense line to give Nate time. Time to make decisions, time to make throws, time to get comfortable. Big Ten defenses are not known for being easy to deal with (ours and a few others not withstanding), so the offensive line is going to have to give Nate as much or more time than he's been getting so far. They are capable of doing so, but once conference play begins, the margin for error is somewhere between slim and none.
Let the Running Backs Do Work
This is arguably the biggest factor in winning in the Big Ten (defense being a close second if not the lead). If you cannot run the ball, you will not win the conference. This is true in the B1G, this is true in the NFL. You don't have to be a "run all the time" team, but you must be able to get the tough yards on the ground. Between Tevin Coleman, D'Angelo Roberts, and Devine Redding, Indiana has a very capable set of running backs. If the offensive line can give them enough space to get free, they are capable of running all over the field. They were able to make big plays against Missouri, and they need to keep doing that for Indiana to make a run at something bigger.
Make Your Kicks Count
Make field goals. Make extra points. Do not leave yards on the field on punts. This is the B1G. Punting is winning.
If Indiana can do most of those things most of the time, and all of those things some of the time, then they've got a very good chance of surprising the nation and making some serious noise in the Big Ten East. It all starts tomorrow against Maryland. Be loud, be proud, be #B1G. Go Hoosiers.