(Special thanks to OTE whose weekly focus on the different teams of the Big Ten reminded me that back in January I had planned on doing the same thing, but due to
the responsibilities of being an adult too much boozing, I put it off until now. So over the next couple months -- and on no real schedule at all -- I'll look at each team in the Big Ten; where they came from and where they're going. There will be some laughter, some tears, and hopefully we'll learn something along the way. So join me, won't you?
On with the show...)
Indiana Hoosiers: Same as it ever was
If you put some unsuspecting Hoosier fan into a coma until next January, only to wake him from it before the Rose Bowl and tell him that the 2011 season was finally when Indiana put it all together and made a run at the BCS, the shock of such a statement would probably kill him or send him into another coma (good for him, because he would miss the next thousand years irrelevance in the Big Ten that would surely follow Indiana so violently upsetting the order of college football by going anywhere but home for the holidays). At the very least you could count on him saying, "this is not my Hoosier team," from his hospital bed.
In fact, if you went down the list, which bowl wouldn't be a cardiac arrest inducing shock to a Hoosier fan? The Capital One Bowl? "We've got a code blue here." Outback or Gator Bowl? "New Years Day, are you kidding me? He's flat lining." Insight Bowl? Texas Bowl? Ticket City Bowl? "He's coming out of it." Little Caesars Pizza Bowl? "Stable condition. That was close, we almost lost him."
This may be an exaggeration of the mental state of Hoosier nation, but if it is it is only slight. The fact is, Indiana hasn't been very good in a long, long time, and hasn't even really been okay in a while. The last season over .500 in Bloomington was 2007 (7-5, L in the Insight Bowl). Before that you have to go back to the Bill Mallory era from 1984-1996 before you find anything approaching success. Mallory finished 8 games below .500 in his career at Indiana, but when you factor in his first season (0 wins) and final two (5 wins combined) his tenure roaming the sidelines for Indiana looks downright sparkling. For an eight year stretch between '86-'93 Mallory led the Hoosiers to bowls in six of the eight seasons, including three eight win seasons -- the last of which in '93 was also the last time Indiana was over .500 in the Big Ten until 2007. This humble blogger was just entering third grade and Penn State was just entering the Big Ten the last time the Hoosiers inspired anything but laughter from the rest of the conference.
I'm sure that the large canon of blues recordings would have given me a suitable subtitle for this look at the Hoosiers: "Nobody Knows You When Your Down and Out" would certainly describe the way the national media sees -- or more aptly, doesn't see -- the Hoosiers year in and year out. "Born Under a Bad Sign" seems to encompass some of the painful ways that Indiana has found to lose, cough, Iowa, cough. Just look at the last two games against Michigan. 2009 ended on a controversial (but in this blogger's humble opinion, correct) interception call, and 2010 ended in another installment of It's Denard's World*. Hell, even "The Thrill is Gone" could pretty much sum up how Hoosier fans feel after their annual helping of MAC-cky cakes are finished. Yet something about David Byrne droning the same phrase over and over during "Once in a Lifetime" seems to fit all too well. Last year's Hoosier team wasn't very good. Next year's team doesn't look to be much better. Same as it ever was.
* (We're just livin' in it)
2010: At Least We Beat Purdue
Let's be honest, there is plenty of ugly to go around in Indiana. Just look at the Hoosier defense.
The story of Hoosier football in 2010 is a heartbreaking tale of what goes wrong when you do one thing very well (pass the ball) while simultaneously sucking at everything else (seriously, everything). Here is a list of the statistical categories in which the Hoosiers were ranked among the bottom 30 teams in FBS:
- Rushing Offense (100 ypg, 112th)
- Pass Efficiency Defense (156.32, 114th (Worse that Michigan's 103rd. Let that sink in for a minute.)
- Total Defense (410 ypg, 90th)
- Scoring Defense (34 ppg allowed, 102nd)
- Net Punting (32.8 yards per punt, 113th)
- Turnover Margin (-.58, 101st)
- Pass Defense (238 ypg, 103rd)
- Sacks (1.25 sacks per game, 103rd)
- Tackles for Loss (5 TFL's per game, 96th)
Wow. That is a whole lot of suck all over the field. The advanced stat guys didn't like the Hoosiers much either. Football Outsiders ranked Indiana 89th in its FEI rankings (94th for defense and 47th for offense). Indiana as a team was terribly inept at almost everything they attempted, and it makes it quite easy to see how the Hoosiers only won one game against a big six conference opponent (suck it, Purdue).
However, it wasn't all gloom and doom last fall for the Hoosiers; just mostly. The team built an identity as a pass happy spread pistol offense, and found a decent amount of success doing so. Ben Chappell wasn't the most efficient quarterback in the country -- coming in 52nd in passer efficiency rating nationally and 7th in the Big Ten -- but he made up for that by sheer volume (23rd in total offense with 275 ypg). How do you rack up that many yards without seeing a bump in efficency? Throw the ball a helluva lot and take what the defense gives you. In eight games last year Chappell threw the ball more than 40 times including a two 50 attempt games and one game you might remember where he put up 64 passing attempts*. Once Chappell got the ball away it was normally in good hands. Three Indiana players put up more than 60 receptions and nearly 700+ yards for the season: Damarlo Belcher (78rec/832yds/4TDs), Tanden Doss (63rec/706yds/7TDs), and Terrance Turner (67rec/681yds/3TDs) with two more (Duwyce Wilson and Ted Bolser) chipping in roughly 30 receptions and 400 yards.
*(I spent the Indiana game at a wedding reception in Wixom, and by "at a wedding reception in Wixom" I mean "listening to the game on the radio in my car and running to the reception hall bar during commercial breaks so I didn't spend one instant of the game without a drink in my hand. The bartender must have seen the frustration on my face and been worried about my mental state as she refused to serve me doubles even though I asked every single time I went to the bar. Michigan Football, turning blogs into AA meetings since 2008).
What do all these stats add up to in the real world? Pain, but a delayed dose of it. The first three games were conveniently scheduled against the Indiana equivalent of the Colonial Athletic Assoc. (FCS), the Sun Belt, and the MAC. For the year those three teams won a whopping four games combined. The next week came a revenge game against Michigan, which in hindsight was probably the worst combination of two defenses in one game that the season saw (at least Big Six conference-wise). Next was the yearly curb-stomping at the hands of OSU followed by a close win over the Sun Belt's own Arkansas State Red Wolves.
Four and two would turn into 4-7 just six weeks later, in one of the most excruciating losing streaks a team could possibly live through -- and that is one thing Michigan fans can now speak on with great authority: demoralizing losing streaks in the Big Ten. First was a thirty point loss to Illinois, then a failed comeback at home against Northwestern. If the previous two games plunged the knife deep into whatever forward momentum the Hoosiers had built over the first month and a half of the season, losing to Iowa -- fresh of a de-pantsing of then undefeated MSU a week earlier -- on a dropped Damarlo Belcher go-ahead TD on 4th and 10 with under thirty seconds left, was the quick twist of the knife that opened the wound to a geyser of blood. There are rumors that a game was scheduled for the next week against Wisconsin at Camp Randall, but all the scores seem to be misprints and all video seems to be Wisconsin scrimmaging against a bad high school team. At least the next week Indiana had the decency to play its home game agaisnt Penn State 1000 miles away from campus.
Fortunately for the Hoosiers there was one game left, and that game was against a bitter rival undergoing the most bizarre string of knee injuries to ever strike a college football team. It still took overtime for Indiana to squeak past Purdue, but there it was: a bright spot for Hoosier fans to hang their hats on to distract themselves from the fact that it was yet another sub-.500 season. Thankfully the NCAA hasn't yet extended bowl eligibility to 5-7 teams with one win over a FCS school*.
*(Coming soon to early December bowl season: Teams from Indiana not named Notre Dame!)
Assessing the Wreckage
Obligatory "throws like a girl" joke here.
What do you do if you are Indiana and you finish under .500 and bowl-less for the third straight year under the same coach? Fire him, of course. Is it fair to Bill Lynch that he was fired for doing at Indiana what coaching legends like Gerry DiNardo and Lee Corso had perennially done at Indiana? It isn't like Lynch took a Big Ten power and drove it directly into a ditch (somewhere Rich Rodriguez's ears are burning). So did Lynch deserve to be fired? Probably not, but like William Munny says, "deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Something needed to change, but whether that change amounts to anything more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is another story, which brings us to...
The Kevin Wilson Era
The look of a man who doesn't quite know what he is getting in to, but he is sure it isn't good.
Wilson came to Indiana by way of his old gig as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, where he oversaw some downright dominant offenses. Although with no head coaching record to speak of we are left with little to discuss but wild speculation about what the impact of Wilson might be. First, the positives for Indiana are threefold:
- Wilson is a Midwest kinda guy. No, he isn't slightly portly with a taste for domestic beer and cheese infused bratwurst (unless he is, these questions don't come up in press conferences nearly as often as they should). After playing for North Carolina in the early 80's and then cutting his teeth at small programs and high schools in NC, Wilson moved to Miami (NTM) and worked his way up to offensive coordinator over his eight year stint in Oxford. By the late 90's he followed head coach Randy Walker to Northwestern where the two helped lead the Cardiac Cats to a Big Ten title in 2000 (and an especially painful victory over Michigan that I can remember listening to on a car ride back from a trip up north to visit relatives.) By 2002 he left Evanston to help head the Oklahoma offense, which leads to...
- Wilson knows offense. You don't lead one of the most prolific offenses of the last five years, win the Broyles Award for top coordinator, and help produce two Heisman winners (Bradford, White) and one runner up (Peterson) unless you've got a pretty good grasp of how to run a college offense. In the last four years Wilson's offenses at Oklahoma have been ranked 19th, 3rd, 23rd, and 10th. His pass heavy spread offense should fit in nicely with the Hoosier's existing personnel and scheme, and if he finds a quarterback the passing game could become more efficient than it has been.
Wilson initially brought in Brent Pease from Boise St. to run the offense, but Pease quickly peaced out (har har) once the same job opened up back home in Boise. Thankfully, Rod Smith had just come on the market after losing his job as quarterback coach in Ann Arbor, and he was quickly hired along with wide receiver coach Kevin Johns from Northwestern to coordinate the Hoosier offense. Smith has two years coordinating experience from his days at USF, but Johns has to this point been a position coach. With Wilson running the show this seems to be a solid tandem to man the offense. Smith has an excellent track record coaching quarterbacks (Pat White, Denard Robinson), and Johns was solid in his time coaching in a pass heavy offense at Northwestern. These hires are prehaps as good as you will find if you are Indiana, and after a winter of assistant coaches coming in and quickly leaving the program, the offense seems to be in stable hands now.
The need at defensive coordinator is much greater. You can't suck at defense and compete in the Big Ten (cue vigorous nodding by Michigan fans), and suck has been the Hoosier's M.O. on defense for some time. Secondary coach, Doug Mallory, will be one of the co-defensive coordinators for the Hoosiers. He has experience coaching under his father in the mid ninties, Les Miles at Oklahoma State and LSU -- where Mallory spent one year as co-defensive coordinator -- as well as spending the last two years as defensive coordinator at New Mexico. Two of these are good, one might be a bad omen (hint, it's having anything to do with New Mexico football). The other man running the defense is Mike Ekeler, who spent most of the last decade coaching high school or being a graduate assistant at Oklahoma and LSU. Ekeler spent the last two years on Bo Pelini's staff at Nebraska, coaching linebackers. This is where things get dicey for the Kevin Wilson era. Mallory has experience helping run a top flight defense at LSU, but you have to imagine the situation that he is stepping in to at Indiana is much more like that of New Mexico: not much talent. In 2010, New Mexico ranked 119th in total defense and 120th in scoring defense. Ekeler is the x-factor in this equation. He is a young guy who has spent some time in low positions at strong defensive programs, and only two years as a position coach -- albeit for a very strong defense. Ekeler is a boom or bust type hire who seems like the kind of guy who will either excel and create upward momentum on the Hoosier defense (before leaving for a better gig somewhere else), or struggle with the adjustment to coordinator, leaving the bulk of the pressure on the somewhat uninspiring Doug Mallory. Unfortunately, when your defensive track record is as bad as Indiana's, rolling the dice is about the only option.
Indiana tailgates: where the political humor is as tasteful as the cheap domestic beer and caffeinated malt beverages
New Kids on the Block - Wilson's first recruiting class brought in 22 players according to Rivals, and seems to feature help in some much needed places. First of all, the defense will get a boost from the only 4-star player in the class, LB Zack Shaw, who chose Indiana over an offer from WVU and a host of MAC schools (while getting interest, but no offer, from UM and OSU per Rivals). The rest of the class is heavy on defensive backs (five, four of them 3-stars), offensive linemen (four), linebackers (three), and wide receivers (three). A solid focus on the trenches and defensive back seven is a good place to start for a team that couldn't stop anyone on defense, and wasn't effective running the ball.
Key Returners - The Hoosiers benefit from returning a decent amount of talent at the offensive skill positions. Two receivers, Belcher and Wilson, return after having productive years in 2010, along with tight end Ted Bolser. Added to this mix is the two year starter at running back, Darius Willis. However, Willis' run in with the law this winter will see him miss one game (presumably the first game against Ball State). Whoever emerges from the four person race at quarterback will undoubtedly have a number of experienced options to give the ball to. Whether anything comes of this will have a lot to do with the progress of the Indiana offensive line, about which the humble blogger can find very little information other than the recollection that it wasn't very good last year.
Defensively the Hoosiers return three of the top five tacklers from last year, including linebackers Jeff Thomas and Leon Beckum. The entire starting defensive line -- tackles Mick Metzner and Larry Black Jr.(who started only 4 games in 2010, but all 12 in 2009) along with ends Adam Replogle and Darius Johnson. In the back four, both safeties return to start with walk on Greg Heban having won the starting job in the last five games in 2010 and Donnell Jones starting 10 games. It looks like Indiana will be breaking in new CB's in 2011. Thank god for that deep secondary recruiting haul, because there isn't much depth.
The Future of Indiana Football and the Economic Problem of Scarcity
These ladies remember the last time Indiana won a Big Ten championship. They were undergrads.
Next year the Hoosier's probably won't be much better than they were this year. (Same as it ever was, remember?) The four non-conference games are pretty sure to be split 3-1. Ball State, South Carolina State, and North Texas are the kinds of teams that even Indiana can still get away with beating up on, but are far from sure wins. Virginia, a similarly maligned Big Six conference team will visit Bloomington in week two for what will probably be a toss up game. Either way, the Hoosiers probably drop one and win three in the first month. With six games and a bowl being the ultimate goal for year one under Wilson, we then look to the Big Ten schedule to see where exactly wins 4, 5, and 6 might come from. I for one have a hard time even finding a sure win #4. The Hoosiers miss out on Nebraska (good), Michigan (TBD), and Minnesota (Bad) from the Big Ten West (na na na, I can't hear you Jim Delany). The home slate consists of visits from Penn State, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue -- with only Purdue looking like a toss up win, but that depends entirely on the collective ACL of the town of West Lafayette. The road games for the Hoosiers are a gauntlet of Wisconsin and Iowa (brusing, physical teams that even after losing significant talent should still be able to control the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense) and November trips to Ohio State and Michigan State -- both assured losses barring an epic collapse from what should be a good Spartan team or a total nuclear meltdown by the conference bully, Ohio State.
Best case scenario? Indiana sweeps the non-conference schedule by beating the teams it should beat, plays one or two games against mid to upper tier Big Ten opponents that give them a shot to win late in the game (think Iowa in 2010), and a second straight victory against Purdue. This probably gets the Hoosiers to six wins and a bowl game.
Worst case? Split the non-conference by losing to Virgina and being upset by one of the various MACky cakes on the schedule, then follow that up with a big fat 0-fer against the Big Ten. Two and ten isn't outside the realm of possibility.
All of this leads to the larger point. Indiana has been bad for a very long time, and even in those short stretches of competent football, there was never any serious threat of sustained success. Indiana is doomed by the very thing that drives the global economy and all our personal decisions: scarcity. There simply aren't enough "wins" out there for everyone.
This isn't groundbreaking stuff, but bear with me as I restate the obvious. In a twelve team conference with an eight game conference schedule there will be 48 wins and 48 losses to go around. Teams like Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and now Nebraska have not only built dynasties on the back of a long tradition of excellence, but in finding so much success for so long those schools have built up sizable economic and infrastructure advantages. Ticket sales, merchandise sales, television coverage all put the teams -- and more importantly the brand that is Buckeye football or Michigan football -- in the minds of the whole country. This widens the recruiting net and fills the athletic department coffers with more and more money with which to upgrade facilities and pay top name coaches. Michigan may be in the worst place it has been in over 40 years, but no one can deny that while the product on the field has been subpar, the combination of money, facilities, and tradition make the climb back to the top much less perilous. It's easier to find your way back if you've already been there.
Indiana has none of these advantages. Even with the money from the Big Ten Network, Indiana still ranked last in the Big Ten in terms of revenue in 07-08 (the latest numbers I could find with a quick google search). On top of that, the 54 million in revenue reported is more than 30 million behind the top four (OSU, PSU, UM, UW) and 20 million behind the next two (MSU, Iowa). It certainly doesn't help that the Hoosiers get no national exposure and are all but invisible to ESPN other than when upper half of the Big Ten is putting on the annual offensive clinic in Bloomington that ends up as highlights of Hoosier players 10 yards out of position on deep bombs and steamrolled for long TD runs.
So back to our original numbers: 48 wins and 48 losses, split between 12 teams. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, this is capitalism at it's finest, and only the strongest survive. On a yearly basis you can usually bet that Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska (and hopefully Michigan again soon) will be taking the majority of these wins, and the middle of the conference -- the MSU's, Iowa's, Northwestern's, and depending on the year Illinois or Purdue -- picking over the rest. If Indiana wants to win and win consistently, someone else has to become the doormat. For every 8-0 Big Ten team there will most likely be an 0-8 team at the other end of the rankings.
Fortunately, success breeds success. There is no better place to find that then traveling north to the shores of Lake Michigan. Northwestern, irrelevant for two decades, and the conference's whipping boy for much of the 70's and 80's, began to climb from the cellar of the Big Ten in the mid 90's by . After toiling away in the middle of the conference and putting together a string of solid lower tier bowl seasons with a couple Big Ten championships along the way, these days Northwestern occupies a comfortable middle ground in the Big Ten and has the talent to feasibly make a run at a Big Ten championship every few years. If Indiana wants to change it's fortunes, it must begin by consistently winning the lower levels of the Big Ten. Beat the teams in the cellar and climb your way up. The hard part is to win the games you should against cupcakes, compete in games you shouldn't against solid Big Ten teams despite talent disadvantages, and win recruiting battles despite infrastructure deficiencies compared to the rest of the conference. Good coaching, good talent assessment on the recruiting trail, and, quite frankly, a few lucky breaks will all have to help turn the tide.
Indiana's Spirit Guide for 2011: Bobby Knight
If the Hoosiers hope to turn things around in the Big Ten, it is going to have to start on the defensive side of the ball. The Hoosiers have been an interesting offensive team in the past -- with the air it out pistol offense of the last couple years, and of course the electric Antwaan Randal El early last decade -- but I can't think of the last time an Indiana has had a defense that could be called anything other than, in the words of coach Knight, "chicken-shit."
I'm sure Bobby Knight could come up with a few colorful adjectives to describe the Hoosier defense of last year.
The Hoosiers need to find a defensive identity if they want to actually matter once Big Ten play begins. If the 2010 Wolverines proved anything it is that it doesn't matter how great your offense is if you can't stop anybody. Bobby Knight wouldn't put up with this kind of disgusting defensive play if he were in charge. The team would be tough, mean, and fundamentally sound. If Kevin Wilson wants to make a lasting impact in Bloomington, he would be wise to take a few notes from coach Knight. Maybe not ones on halftime speeches or player discipline though.
Next time, we will travel to Gopher country to assess the wreckage of hurricane Brewster, and the prospects of a man named Kill. See you then.
(I'm not an Indiana fan -- thank god -- so if you are and you see an error, please let me know.)