For the better part of the last twenty years, no one has expected Indiana football to win a plurality of their Big Ten games. Heck, for many of those years, the Hoosiers were favored to win exactly 0 of their conference games.
Those days are gone. After a yet another hard-fought loss at the hands of Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes, you should feel as good as you’ve felt about an Indiana football team and what’s left for this team to accomplish since Bill Mallory left Bloomington. And, yes, we’re talking about more than just 6 wins.
Part of that can be attributed to the program Kevin Wilson & staff have built in Bloomington. This is Wilson’s most complete football team in his tenure in Bloomington by miles, and likely the most complete Indiana team since Mallory’s 1993 Independence Bowl team that went 8-4. Tom Allen’s spanking new defense is responsible for a good deal of that. Indiana held the nation’s best offense to their lowest offensive output of the season — 20 points and 200 yards below the Bucks’ average. That even includes a pair of 5 and 9 yard touchdown drives, thanks to a clearly blown incompletion-ruled-a-fumble and bad kick coverage. Indiana’s defense effectively held JT Barrett and company to 24 points. That’s really damn good. Just ask Bob Stoops.
Strangely enough, the Hoosiers’ greatest concerns might come on the offensive side of the ball. Kevin Wilson & Kevin Johns seemingly made the choice to try and run the ball down Ohio State’s throat on Saturday -- a choice that didn’t pay off. Reasons for that could’ve been multiple. It was Richard Lagow’s first road Big Ten start, against possibly the nation’s best team. It was reportedly somewhat windy down on the field, enough to affect both team’s passing games. Underdogs like to shorten the game. Ohio State’s rushing defense is stout, but it’s still clear that Indiana misses Dan Feeney greatly up front. His concussion sustained against Ball State has now kept the All-American and possible first rounder out for a full month -- and it’s hard to know when he might be back in Indiana’s lineup.
Indiana’s electric offense, while somewhat muted against a stout Ohio State defense, is leaving points on the board, too. Both red zone struggles and and a sub-par kicking game that was supposed to be a strength can be to blame. Here’s a quick sampling of the points the Hoosiers left on the board against Ohio State:
|Time||Position on Field||Result||Points Left|
|1st (12:15)||1st & Goal, OSU 5||Field Goal||-4|
|1st (3:15)||4th & 5, OSU 35||Punt||-3|
|2nd (9:55)||1st & 10, OSU 27||Punt||-3|
|4th (10:30)||2nd & 2, OSU 5||Downs||-7|
|Total Points Left||17|
Indiana's poor Red Zone performance is turning touchdowns into field goals, and Griffen Oakes' unexpected struggles are turning field goal opportunities into punts. In competitive games against teams like Ohio State, you can't do that. If the Hoosiers convert each of those opportunities, Indiana leads Ohio State by 3 in Columbus with ten minutes left. Instead, they ended up losing by 21. These are the margins between meh, good and really, really good.
So, sure there's area for improvement, but the chief takeaway from Saturday in Columbus? Indiana's right there. And now, the schedule turns in their favor. Prior to yesterday, the Hoosiers were favored in 5 of their next 6 games by Bill Connelly's S&P+ model. The only matchup where Indiana's an underdog comes Saturday on Homecoming, where the model still only likes the Huskers by 3. That doesn't account for Tommy Armstrong's nagging ankle injury, and the likely absence of Jordan Westerkamp and Cethan Carter for Nebraska's offense, either.
So here you go: Indiana has five extremely winnable games coming, four of which they'll be favored. The script flips. Indiana won't be sneaking up on anyone. How do you handle success? How do you handle being the hunted -- rather than the hunter? Each of these teams are plenty good enough to beat Indiana. But if the Hoosiers could handle business and put together a stretch of real momentum, there's a chance that Indiana could head to Ann Arbor on November 19 with the Big Ten East on the line if Ohio State drops a game between now and then.
Sure, sure. That probably won't happen. But for the first time in recent memory, everything's in front of this Indiana team. And this Indiana team might be just good enough to take advantage.