IOWA CITY — There’s good, bad and ugly associated with Indiana football this year, and you can bet Iowa’s football staff will look only at the good this week.
Indiana (4-4, 0-4) has proved it can play up to its competition despite its winless Big Ten record. The Hoosiers were inside the 5-yard line even with a backup quarterback on the game’s final play in a 34-27 home loss to No. 1 Ohio State. They trailed No. 6 Michigan State 31-26 midway through the fourth quarter in an eventual 52-26 defeat.
However, the Hoosiers also have proved they can play down to their competition. Southern Illinois’ failed 2-point conversion attempt preserved a 48-47 Indiana victory in the opener. A 96-yard interception return with 3:58 left led to a 36-22 win against Florida International. In a moment of real bad and ugly, the Hoosiers blew a 25-point, second-half lead against Rutgers and lost 55-52.
But the Hoosiers have potential and firepower. Behind quarterback Nate Sudfeld, the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in pass offense (287 yards per game) and total offense (467.6). Indiana ranks 24th and 27th, respectively, nationally in both categories, rare rankings in the defensive-centric Big Ten. Perhaps more concerning for No. 11 Iowa (8-0, 4-0) in this week’s match-up is the aggressive mindset of Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson.
Wilson, who is in his fifth year as Indiana’s coach, flat-out told reporters Monday, “I think too many football coaches are too conservative,” Wilson proved his philosophy in the Hoosiers’ 38-35 win against Western Kentucky. With Indiana leading 38-28 in the fourth quarter, he eschewed a field-goal from point-blank range to go for a first down on fourth and 4. The Hoosiers failed to convert, but they eventually held on.
“My thought was, first of all, Western Kentucky is going to score touchdowns a lot,” Wilson said Monday. “That’s just the type of team they are. Not that your defense is going to play bad. They’re going to score touchdowns.
“My thought was, ‘If we kick a field goal, it goes to 13. So flip over to defense, kick a field goal, it’s 13. You’re still losing with two touchdowns.’ I think we need to go to 17, make it a three-score game. So what do you guys think? Go back to offense.”
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With an offense like Indiana, his outlook makes sense. Among Big Ten teams, Indiana ranks third in first downs (23.9), third in red-zone offense (90.9 percent) and third in pass efficiency (143.5). The Hoosiers’ turnover margin is positive (plus-6, 20th nationally) and despite the dropbacks, they give up the Big Ten’s fewest sacks (10).
But there’s a byproduct of Wilson’s aggressive mindset. Defense has been the Hoosiers’ biggest problem under Wilson. In four of his five Big Ten seasons, Indiana has finished last in total defense. His 2013 squad set the league record by giving up 527.9 yards a game. This year’s squad (508.6 total yards) is on track for the second-worst number in Big Ten history.
Indiana ranks 12th among Big Ten teams in time of possession (29:04), which keeps his defense on the field for long stretches. Indiana gives up more points (37.2), total yards, first downs (24.5), passing yards (342.1) and a higher rate of third-down conversions (44.7 percent) than any team in the Big Ten. Indiana ranks 12th in rush defense, 12th in overall penalties and 13th in pass defense efficiency.
So with four games remaining, the Hoosiers face a crossroads to their season. Saturday, they have a chance to gain a signature win and bring national relevance to their program. By season’s end, they could earn their second bowl berth since 1993. Or, Indiana could find a way to lose those games as it had in the past and bring uncertainty to Wilson’s future. But if you expect anything from Wilson about his Hoosiers, it’s to take an aggressive approach with a golf analogy.
“I kind of like the thought process of Tiger Woods years ago when he said he always expected his opponent to make the putt,” Wilson said. “There is another golf analogy for you. I’ll just go ahead and tweak that out one more time. But he expects the guy to make it. I hope he misses. He’s lining up, OK, it’s right edge, here we go. I’ve got to make my putt.”
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