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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 109: Indiana

All that was missing was a banana peel. Or Moe, Larry and Curly — nyuk nyuk — though this team could have used the laughs. Indiana’s season was like the spring training montage from “Major League,” but the film stopped there: there was no magical, inspired turnaround, just loss after loss after loss. Part of me was surprised that after finally scoring a touchdown against Wisconsin, Kevin Wilson didn’t imitate one of his predecessors, Lee Corso, and have the entire roster pose under the nearest scoreboard for a team photo. This was the worst B.C.S. conference team in the country, beating out strong contenders like Kansas, Mississippi, Maryland and Colorado for the crown, and this might have also been the worst team in program history. The latter designation says it all, if you’re familiar with the history of Indiana football.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
Bloomington, Ind.

Nickname
Hoosiers

Returning starters
15 (7 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 103

2011 record
(1-11, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 113

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Indiana State
  • Sept. 8
    at Massachusetts
  • Sept. 15
    Ball St.
  • Sept. 29
    at Northwestern
  • Oct. 6
    Michigan St.
  • Oct. 13
    Ohio St.
  • Oct. 20
    at Navy
  • Oct. 27
    at Illinois
  • Nov. 3
    Iowa
  • Nov. 10
    Wisconsin
  • Nov. 17
    at Penn St.
  • Nov. 24
    at Purdue

Last year’s prediction

There will be the inevitable transition period accompanying any coaching change, good hire or no. And the Big Ten schedule will still find I.U. an underdog nearly throughout; it’s highly unlikely that the Hoosiers win a game on the road, and each of the four teams that come to Bloomington should be better than they were in 2010. So based on a handful of factors, I think those dreaming of a first-year success should temper those expectations: I imagine it will take at least a year before making those bowl plans, and Indiana might not even match last season’s win total, depending on how it fares during non-conference play.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Listen: If one or two plays had gone their way, the Hoosiers could have won three games. Indiana led Ball State at halftime; see-sawed against Virginia, scoring 28 unanswered points but allowing the Cavaliers to storm back over the game’s final minutes; scored 21 points in the final frame against North Texas, though it was already too late; and hung around with sleepy Penn State, coming within a last-second heave of a monumental upset. That heave, like Indiana as a whole, came up well short of its desired target. Nearly as distressing as the final record, however, was the way I.U. folded up and died over the second half of the season. You would have liked to see the Hoosiers win more games, of course, but you would have loved to see this team continue plugging away once the season spiraled out of control.

High point If the Hoosiers ever become the team Kevin Wilson wants them to be, they’ll move the ball against Big Ten competition the same way they did against South Carolina State on Sept. 17. The running game found an early flow and stayed there, rushing for 257 yards. The Hoosiers threw for 300 yards, gained 29 first downs and converted on 13 of 20 third downs. The Hoosiers also committed 20 penalties for 176 yards, however.

Low point If you think close losses hurt worse than 40-point losses, then take your pick of Ball State, Virginia, North Texas, Penn State or Purdue. If you think getting your doors blown off is more painful than a close-but-no-cigar loss, then pick any one of the remaining six losses.

Tidbit Indiana finished 10th nationally in penalties in 2010, Bill Lynch’s final season with the program, averaging 4.4 penalties and 40.5 penalty yards per game. Those two totals skyrocketed last fall to 6.9 penalties and 64.7 penalty yards per game, moving Indiana from 10th in the F.B.S. to 108th. Part of the blame lies with Wilson, a rookie head coach, but the increase in penalties was also due to Indiana’s youth.

Tidbit (youth edition) Speaking of youth… Freshmen and sophomores accounted for 1,925 of Indiana’s 1,932 yards rushing. Freshmen and sophomores accounted for all 2,393 of Indiana’s passing yards and all but one of the team’s 378 attempts. Indiana started 12 freshmen against Northwestern on Oct. 29, the most in the F.B.S. last fall. Eight of the 12 starters were true freshmen. Youth still rules the day: Indiana has only eight seniors on the roster.

Tidbit (in-state edition) The Hoosiers will play three teams from inside the state of Indiana this fall: Indiana State, Ball State and, as always, Purdue. This is the only second time in the modern era of college football — I say 1936 — that the Hoosiers will play three in-state rivals in the same season, joining 2007, when Indiana made its only bowl berth since 1994.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 OT James Brewer (New York Giants), WR Tandon Doss (Baltimore), LB Jammie Kirlew (Jacksonville), S Nick Polk (San Diego), CB Tracy Porter (Denver), WR Courtney Roby (New Orleans), OT Rodger Saffold (St. Louis), RB Chris Taylor (New Orleans), RB Marcus Thigpen (Miami).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with Indiana ties, with notable work
1. Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”
2. Theodore Dreiser, “An American Tragedy.”
3. Booth Tarkington, “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
4. A.B. Guthrie, “The Way West.”
5. Lew Wallace, “Ben Hur.”

Coaching

Kevin Wilson (North Carolina ’84), 1-11 after one season. It was not a good start for Wilson, who came to Bloomington from Oklahoma, where he spent the previous nine seasons under Bob Stoops. He was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator for this entire period, first sharing those duties from 2002-5 before taking on the entire package over the next five years; over this span, Wilson tutored stars like Adrian Peterson, Trent Williams and Sam Bradford, helping the latter win the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. Wilson also coached the Sooners’ offensive linemen from 2002-5 and the tight ends and running backs from 2006-10, helping him develop an extremely thorough understanding of the various pieces behind an explosive offense. Speaking of explosive: Oklahoma had the most prolific offense in N.C.A.A. history in 2008, setting new records with five consecutive 50-point games and with 716 total points. So you can see why Indiana – and others – were so interested in Wilson, who earned this opportunity based on his many, many years of service as Oklahoma’s lead offensive assistant. He also has Big Ten experience: Wilson was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern from 1999-2001, helping the Wildcats to an eight-win finish in 2000 behind a school-record 441-point outburst. Yeah, it’s all about the offense; Wilson has a superb background of success as a game-planner and play-caller, which fits well into what Indiana wanted in a new coach. One thing to watch: Wilson was at Northwestern, to be fair, but the majority of his experience came at a built-in powerhouse. It won’t be the same in Bloomington. Through one season, the tricks he learned at Oklahoma have yet to be repeated with the Hoosiers.

Tidbit (coaching edition) The two programs didn’t work it out beforehand, but Indiana and Arizona swapped offensive coordinators after the end of last season. In early December, the Hoosiers lost Rod Smith to Arizona, where he’ll be Rich Rodriguez’s co-offensive coordinator. About a month later, Seth Littrell, Arizona’s coordinator over the previous two seasons, joined Wilson’s staff in Bloomington. Don’t look for anything to change: Littrell, like Wilson, is a branch on the Mike Leach coaching tree, so the two fit together nicely. Indiana also hired one of the best positional coaches in college football in new defensive end coach Jon Fabris, who held the same position at Georgia from 2001-9. He replaces Brett Diersen, who resigned in early January. But don’t worry: Diersen landed on his feet. He’ll coach the defensive line for Carl Pelini at Florida Atlantic.

Players to watch

Indiana has as many quarterbacks currently on the roster, two, as it had quarterbacks with starting experience leave the program since the end of last season. Not that losing Dusty Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker is going to keep Wilson awake at nights: neither factored into Indiana’s future plans at the position, though the pair’s decision to transfer does leave the Hoosiers with painfully little depth under center. Come the summer, I.U. will add a third option in true freshman Nathan Sudfeld; he’s no Gunner Kiel, who gave a verbal commitment to Indiana before waffling once, twice and again, but the staff is high on Sudfeld’s potential in this offense.

Whether he’ll play or take a redshirt hinges on two factors: one, if sophomore Tre Roberson has what it takes to play at an adequate level; and two, if JUCO transfer Cameron Coffman’s early arrival — he participated in spring ball — will give him enough of a foothold in Wilson’s system to start from day one. For now, I’d be more confident in Coffman grasping the nuts and bolts of Indiana’s system than in Roberson’s game progressing to the point where he can be trusted as the leader of this offense.

But if the season started today, Roberson’s getting the nod. This is largely because Coffman’s playing catch-up; Roberson is a year into Wilson’s offense while Coffman has 15 spring practices under his belt. While Roberson gives I.U. a different dimension at quarterback as a runner, Wilson’s time at Oklahoma proves that this offense demands a quarterback able to make every throw in the playbook. Coffman, the better passer, gives I.U. the best chance at success. If Wilson wants to run a pass-happy offense, then he should forget about trotting out a dual-threat quarterback and opt for a pocket passer.

Roberson’s skills as a runner may be rendered superfluous if Stephen Houston carries his strong finish to last season over to 2012. A non-factor in September, Houston moved into the starting lineup against Penn State on the first Saturday of October and stayed there, productive nearly every week, through the end of the season. Houston rushed for 802 yards on the year — all but 91 over the final eight games — and cracked the 100-yard mark three times, paced by a season-high 151 yards against Northwestern.

Isaiah Roundtree, a shifty sophomore, would present a nice change-of-pace look behind Houston. Keep an eye out for incoming freshman running back Tevin Coleman, who chose Indiana over offers from West Virginia, Iowa, Michigan State and Georgia Tech, among others.

Losing Damario Belcher midway through last season hurt, but beyond serving as a cautionary tale — you really shouldn’t violate team rules — his departure gave several younger receivers the chance to earn meaningful snaps during Big Ten play. One such receiver, junior Kofi Hughes, made 19 receptions for 284 yards over the last six games of last season, a period highlighted by a 147-yard performance against Ohio State. Hughes, Jammone Chester (21 receptions for 240 yards) and Shane Wynn (19 for 197) made up Indiana’s top group at receiver during the spring; Duwyce Wilson, a projected starter, was sidelined while recovering from knee surgery. Indiana also has a few sophomores ready for action — one, Jay McCants, has nice size — and another three freshmen arriving over the summer.

Indiana dove deep into the JUCO pool over this past recruiting cycle, signing eight such prospects in its 25-member class. More than half of those JUCO recruits were midterm additions, which gave the Hoosiers’ roster a healthy dose of fresh blood on both sides of the ball. One spring arrival was Coffman; as noted, he could end up as Indiana’s starting quarterback. Another three JUCO transfers moved into starting roles on defense during the spring, and that number might grow by the time the rest of the JUCO gang moves into Bloomington over the summer.

Two JUCO transfers ended the spring atop the depth chart at linebacker. It’s here that I.U. lost a pair of starters, returning only strong side linebacker Chase Hoobler (48 tackles, 5.0 for loss), so the opportunity was clearly there for a newcomer to step right into a major role. Indiana will shuffle the rotation to adapt to the projected new starters, David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander: Hoobler will move to the weak side, with Alexander taking his old spot and Cooper stepping in for Jeff Thomas, last year’s leading tackler, in the middle.

Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is familiar with working JUCO transfers into the starting lineup, which will be a plus. While at Nebraska in 2010, Ekeler helped Lavonte David earn an immediate starting role despite his delayed arrival; unlike Alexander and Cooper, David didn’t arrive in Lincoln until the summer. Sometimes, JUCO players have David-like careers. Indiana would be ecstatic if Alexander and Cooper turn into half the player David was over his two years at Nebraska.

The interior of the defensive line is strong on seniors — in fact, half of Indiana’s eight seniors are defensive linemen. Two of the seniors, Larry Black, Jr. (47 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Adam Replogle (49 tackles, 4.0 sacks), are back in starting roles at tackle. Nicholas Sliger is also back; he’ll be the top interior reserve. Add in redshirt freshman Adarius Rayner and you have Indiana’s top interior quartet, for better or worse. This group, with Rayner in for Mick Mentzer, was at the center of some cringe-worthy meltdowns against the run last fall: eight opponents rushed for at least 200 yards and three for at least 300, and I.U. ended the season ranked 118th nationally against the run.

In a perfect world, Indiana could stop the run and get to the quarterback. In a flawed but acceptable world, Indiana could do one or the other — stop the run but not get the quarterback, or vice versa. In the world of reality, Indiana’s returning defensive linemen, which includes every starter and most reserves, have proved themselves unable to stand tall against the run or get consistent pressure in the backfield. If we return to a perfect world, Fabris would turn still-developing sophomores Bobby Richardson (27 tackles, 3.0 sacks) and Ryan Phillis (30 tackles) into disruptive pass rushers. That would be one heck of an achievement. Richardson is a promising talent, but he needs more experience to reach his full potential.

Beefing up the pass rush is Indiana’s top goal heading into September. Being able to dictate the tempo on clear passing downs interrupts a quarterback’s timing, throwing the opposing passing game out of sync. Doing so would help the conference’s second-worst pass defense: last fall, only Minnesota was friendlier to Big Ten quarterbacks. The good news for I.U. is that three starters return, and another JUCO arrival is poised to step in for the lone starter lost to graduation.

As in 2011, juniors Greg Heban (62 tackles, team-best 2 interceptions) and Lawrence Barnett will start at cornerback. Sophomore Mark Murphy (76 tackles), Indiana’s leading returning tackler, is back at strong safety. The JUCO transfer, Ryan Thompson, will step in for Donnell Jones at free safety. One thing Thompson’s arrival has done is push sophomore Flo Hardin into a reserve role, increasing depth. Even with last year’s experience, the secondary remains very young. You can actually say this about the entire team, outside of defensive tackle.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line Indiana lost one full-time starter and a second linemen who split time in the starting lineup at right tackle. It’s finding a replacement for the former is one issue I.U. must face as it heads into the summer. Another is a concern that has plagued a number of teams seen thus far: Indiana is in trouble if one or more projected starters are lost due to injury. The Hoosiers are thin up front, with only 11 linemen currently on the roster altogether, and will as a result need to rely heavily on the miracles of modern medicine to ensure that the starting five stay healthy and upright.

Junior Charlie Chapman occupied Andrew McDonald’s spot at left tackle during the spring, which wasn’t surprising: Chapman played understudy to McDonald last fall, not starting any games but — hopefully — learning what it takes to start at blind side tackle in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers shouldn’t have to look far to find a replacement for right tackle Justin Pagan; he and sophomore Peyton Eckert split starts right down the line a year ago. And the interior of the line remains intact: sophomore Bernard Taylor at left guard, senior Will Matte — the line’s best — at center and sophomore Collin Rahrig at right guard. Again, the issue for I.U. is beyond the starting five, as Wilson and his staff can’t feel secure about potentially turning the reins over to the second grouping.

Game(s) to watch

There are no clear wins here. Indiana State? The Sycamores — who get better and better every fall — beat Western Kentucky by 28 points last fall; the Hilltoppers beat North Texas by 10 points; the Mean Green beat Indiana by a field goal. Massachusetts? I suppose that’s a win, but can you be sure? Ball State, another team getting better all the time, beat the Hoosiers in last year’s season opener. Then you get the start of Big Ten play, and that’s when the bottom should really drop out.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There’s Indiana, followed by a gap, followed by Minnesota, followed by a few miles, then there’s the rest of the Big Ten. And it’s lonely at the bottom, as the Hoosiers can attest. After last season, all that the program should aim for is subtle yet noticeable improvement, the sort that doesn’t necessarily show itself in the win column but would remain clearly evident to those who saw I.U. fall all over itself scrambling for the exits over the second half of last season. This would be progress: two wins during non-conference play; one during Big Ten play; no more than two losses by more than four touchdowns; and no sluggish, unmotivated play over the second half of another losing season. In specific, it would be great to see the Hoosiers begin moving the ball with consistency in Wilson’s offense, particularly through the air. It would also be nice to see the front seven slow down the running game on first down and get some pressure on third down — though after last season, doing one but not the other would be good enough. Baby steps. From one win to two, two wins to three and so on down the line. Don’t get greedy, and if you have faith in the process, keep the faith. If you don’t, then get in line. But if you do — and bless you heart — keep in mind this idea: If a program like Northwestern can do it, so can Indiana. If you take no solace in that thought, then your faith is lacking.

Dream season The offense starts clicking in September and never lets up, propelling I.U. to a perfect 4-0 mark in non-conference play and four wins during Big Ten action.

Nightmare season You wouldn’t think it could get any worse, but then it does: winless.

In case you were wondering

Where do Indiana fans congregate? A few good options, though you’re always bound to find more basketball chatter than football talk. If you’re intrigued, try out Hoosier Nation and Inside Indiana for recruiting news. Additional solid coverage can be found at The Hoosier Scoop, a blog from The Herald Times, and The Crimson Quarry.

Indiana’s all-name nominee TE Charles Love III.

Word Count

Through 16 teams 52,206.

Up Next

Who is No. 108? Tomorrow’s university is located in a city whose name doubles as a 1949 film staring John Payne, a 2008 film staring Carmela Poch and a 2009 film staring Denisa Demeterova.

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Comments

  1. Pittalum says:

    UTEP is next

  2. Dr. Klahn says:

    UTEP?

  3. Dr. Klahn says:

    Beat me by five minutes

  4. Matt Rob says:

    Kurt FTW.

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