After last weekend, Michigan has a much clearer path to winning the Big Ten East division, which makes Saturday's contest between Michigan and Indiana that much more important. You got to meet the Hoosiers football team yesterday, but, today, we've reached out to an expert on all things Indiana for his insight: Kyle Robbins, who is the managing editor of The Crimson Quarry -- SB Nation's Indiana site. Kyle shares with us that Kevin Wilson's job shouldn't be in jeopardy, Indiana's receivers shouldn't have a problem getting open against Michigan's secondary, Michigan wants to throw it deep against Indiana's defense, and why nothing will make sense on the field Saturday in this excellent and entertaining Q&A. Check it out below!
Kevin Wilson is in his fifth season as the coach for Indiana, which historically is one of the most difficult places to succeed in a Power 5 conference. The Hoosiers have finished with a winning record only once since 1993 and haven't had one under Wilson. This year, Indiana swept its non-conference slate but lost its first five Big Ten games, one of which included a total implosion at home vs. Rutgers. With games at Maryland and Purdue still on the docket, a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility still are very much a possibility. But, if the Hoosiers fall short of that mark, is Wilson's job in jeopardy?
It's becoming an interesting situation that I'm asked about every week -- and my answer has generally been "nah." But there's some nuance to that. Indiana is not one of the most difficult places to succeed in Power 5 football. It is the most difficult place to succeed in Power 5 football, and that's quantifiable. Every other program that has been putrid for the better part of history has had recent flashes of major success. Kansas and Wake Forest went to BCS bowl games in the mid-2000s. Washington State had the 1997 Rose Bowl. Baylor and Duke have turned their programs into winners. Indiana? The Hoosiers have a couple of 8-4 seasons nearly 30 years ago and a Rose Bowl beatdown in 1967 to show for a century-plus of football. With the strength of the coaches in the Big Ten East, it's not getting any easier, either. Indiana is a damn tough place to win. Add to that Indiana's desire to underpay the football coach -- Kevin Wilson makes less money than Memphis' Justin Fuente, among others.
The bottom line is this -- the decision for a school to rid themselves of a coach has to be predicated on the ability to acquire a better one. Kevin Wilson is a damn good football coach -- one that I think could be wildly successful in an easier situation. He's worked wonders with quarterbacks and offensive lines, and Indiana's on-field product is incredibly fun to watch. They've held a second half lead on five consecutive top-10 teams dating back to last season. At Indiana, that's something. There are plenty of years in the past where 52-3 beatdowns at the hands of conference powers were the norm. That's not the case anymore. Is Wilson perfect? No -- he's still never been to a bowl game and the defensive troubles are concerning. But, with the sheer number of openings, this doesn't seem like the right time for Indiana to move on from Wilson.
However, Wilson's contract situation makes it interesting. He's got two years left on his contract after this season, which runs through the end of 2017. You can't let a college football coach go into the last year of his contract, or you run the risk of completely tanking any recruiting momentum the program might have. That means Wilson would be in a de facto contract year in 2016 -- a season in which the team could be reasonably expected to take a step back after losing Nate Sudfeld and a few key cogs along the offensive line. Here's the question I've be wondering out loud about for some time: if Wilson makes it to 6-6 or 7-5 this season, would he look elsewhere? Getting Indiana to a bowl game is something -- and he's criminally underpaid. If some of these other lower or middle-tier P5 jobs open up and miss on hotter names, might they look to someone like Wilson? If they do, I think he'd certainly listen if Indiana can't guarantee his long-term future.
I've wondered for a long time what Indiana football would look like if it could just field an average defense. Not elite. Not great. Just average. I say that because there are years -- like this one -- when the Hoosiers put together an explosive offense but the defense can't hold up its end of the bargain. For example, since 2008, Indiana has never finished better than 91st in Defensive S&P+. Why can't the Hoosiers cobble together an average defense? Is it simply recruiting? Or is there more to it than that?
Don't worry, I've wondered for a long time, too. To be honest, I have no idea. It's something you can trace back to even the late '90s with those Cam Cameron and Antwaan Randle El things. Indiana's offense can put up a ton of points, but just can stop anybody. I don't know that you can really blame recruiting -- at least at the top end. Indiana's probably landed as many or more big-time recruits on the defensive side of the ball as they have on offense -- especially out of Indiana. Darius Latham and Antonio Allen (dismissed from program this offseason) were two big four-star type gets for Wilson out of the Indianapolis area. Prior to that, you had guys like Jerimy Finch, who Michigan fans probably remember not so fondly. Indiana's had plenty of defensive stars too, many that have gone on to NFL success. Tracy Porter, Greg Middleton, Bobby Richardson, all come to mind in recent years.
I guess If you're pointing at reason, it probably comes down to depth and the pedigree of the coaches Indiana has had now and in the past. Indiana's had quality players leading the defense -- but the differences between a second-teamer at Indiana and Michigan are massive. On defense, where you're going to rotate in and out a lot more players, that's where the mistakes will show through.
Add to that, Indiana's always skewed toward having offensive-oriented head coaches, and for good reason. If you're going suck, at least suck and score lots of points. That's at least going to help keep fans interested and put butts in seats. It's oft-discussed that Indiana parted from Bill Mallory in the '90s because he didn't play an "exciting" brand of football. Like it or not, that's something you have to do at Indiana to garner fan interest. Guys like Wilson and Cam Cameron have been adept enough innovators to make great offenses out of suboptimal recruiting.
The defense? Not so much.
Nate Sudfeld has been one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, posting stats (60.1 cmp%, 278.6 YPG, 8.5 YPA, 15:5 TD:INT ratio, 146.3 rating) comparable to Connor Cook. However, Sudfeld struggled when he faced Ohio State and Iowa (44.8 cmp%, 157.0 YPG, 5.4 YPA, 1:1 TD:INT ratio, 92.5 rating), both of which have excellent pass defenses. Michigan also has an excellent pass defense, ranking first in both yards allowed per attempt and opponent passer rating. What are Sudfeld's strengths as a quarterback? And why haven't they materialized against better pass defenses?
Sudfeld's an incredibly efficient accurate passer, and those numbers against better pass defenses are more than a little misleading. He's got an NFL arm, *generally* doesn't make bad decisions with the football, and delivers the ball quickly. It's everything you can ask for in a Big Ten quarterback -- and probably why he'll be in the conversation with Cook to make that First-Team All-Big Ten roster.
Sudfeld attempted to play with an ankle injury against Ohio State -- one that clearly wasn't letting him plant and deliver the ball properly. He was skipping throws and couldn't move around at all in the pocket -- finally resulting in him being replaced by Zander Diamont in the third quarter. You can chalk up a good number of good number of those incompletions against Iowa at the hands (or lack thereof) of Indiana's receiving corps, as well. But we'll discuss that in a moment. Was he stellar against Iowa? No. Desmond King certainly made his presence known. Was he as bad as those numbers indicate? Nah. Not hardly. Completing a pass in football is a two-actor process, and you can't ask for much more than for your quarterback to put the ball right on the pass-catcher's hands.
Sticking with the passing game, Nate Sudfeld seems to have three favorite targets: Ricky Jones (41 rec., 708 yards, 5 TD), Simmie Cobbs, Jr. (36 rec., 552 yards, 3 TD), and Mitchell Paige (33 rec., 416 yards, 2 TD). No other Indiana receiver has more than 10 catches. How would you describe each of these three receivers? And can any give Jourdan Lewis, who's been one of the nation's best cover corners, a serious challenge?
All three are complementary -- and they're all good enough to get open on anyone in the country. They've shown that against Ohio State and Iowa. They've also shown the ability to drop the most pedestrian of passes. Cobbs is a big target, big guy, possession-receiver type. Jones is more of your vertical threat, smaller, 5-10, has the speed to get downfield and get in the endzone from anywhere on the field. Evans is your 5-7 former walk-on slot receiver that your father will use certain language in discussing -- gritty. Works hard. Real lunch-pail type. So on and so forth.
Again, they've consistently gotten open all year. They've also consistently dropped balls in big spots all year. Cobbs had nothing but green in front of him when he dropped a crossing route that would've put Indiana up two scores on Ohio State. Jones had a handful of drops against Iowa. Evans has had his share as well. Sure, Michigan's defense is great, Jourdan Lewis, fine, whatever. I get that. Michigan's pass defense is excellent. Still, I don't think they'll be the least bit intimidated or anything of that nature. I'd expect all three to be able to get open enough to receive targets. I just don't know that they'll then catch those targets.
Indiana moves the ball more effectively through the air, but that doesn't mean the Hoosiers don't have weapons on the ground. UAB transfer Jordan Howard has stepped right in and been fantastic (158 car., 961 yards, 6.08 YPC, 7 TD) when not hampered with an ankle injury. Howard splits the load with Devine Redding, who's tallied as many touchdowns as Howard but hasn't been nearly as threatening (134 car., 463 yards, 3.46 YPC). Why don't the Hoosiers feed Howard the ball more? Is it to preserve his health and stamina? Or do Howard and Redding complement each other?
Honestly, Indiana moves the ball far more effectively on the ground than they do through the air -- when healthy. That's the key -- Jordan Howard's ankle. People have managed to forget that Howard led the country in rushing prior to going down with his ankle injury against Ohio State, and that's justifiable. He had that success outside of Big Ten play. But he's still managed to rank second in the conference in rushing -- after missing what amounts to at least three games with injury. He tried to play through the early injury against Ohio State, but was very literally limping through carries in the first half. He missed every play but one in the second, and then went on the shelf for two weeks. He returned against Michigan State, albeit in a very limited capacity. Iowa was the first outing that he'd looked fully healthy since the non-conference, racking up 174 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries last week. But he still wasn't healthy. He asked to be pulled from the game late on a drive in the fourth quarter, and it came out afterward that his ankle still wasn't fully 100% healthy.
Wilson does like to use multiple backs, and Redding is a good one. But Howard is a play-on-Sundays runner that has had more truck-stick runs in one season than I've maybe ever seen out of an Indiana back. Wilson's given him more than enough carries when he's been healthy, too -- he had 31 and 33 in the two weeks prior to his injury.
If another week of progress has allowed him to get closer to 100%, expect Indiana to give him the ball early and often Saturday.
Defensively, Indiana has been bad in almost every facet. The basic stats believe that the Hoosiers' pass defense has been worse (92nd in YPC, 106th in YPA, 104th in passer rating), but the computers think the opposite (91st in Rushing S&P+, 72nd in Passing S&P+). Either way, the numbers aren't good. If you were an offensive coordinator, how would you gameplan for Indiana's defense? Where are the Hoosiers most vulnerable?
Pick plays out of a hat. Select a nine-year-old out of the stands to run the team for a week. Take a vacation. Indiana's vulnerable everywhere, but they'll make you think they're good first. It's super weird. Indiana will get a handful of stops Saturday -- usually those come in the third quarter. Then they, like, forget how to tackle in the fourth. I don't know. It's super weird. Indiana's front seven really isn't bad! Seriously! They've been pretty solid on early downs against the run. The real problem is the secondary, who couldn't stop a dang high school 7-on-7 team.
Serious advice: Throw it. Throw it deep. Throw it deep again. Indiana's young secondary struggles to do two things: cover and tackle. Those are two very important things. It's seemingly improved in recent weeks, but it's still a glaring hole. Rashard Fant and Andre Brown are young corners. Jonathan Crawford is a freshman starting at safety. They're great athletes still learning to play in the defensive backfield, and if you give them enough time, they'll look just like it.
Indiana's defense may be bad, but that doesn't mean there are no solid defenders hidden in this unit. Who are some Hoosiers that will stand out in a positive way?
Darius Latham's a big part of Indiana's ability to be successful on early downs. Nick Mangieri's another quality member of the front seven. Indiana's linebackers were the reason the Hoosiers were one of the top teams in the nation in creating turnovers earlier this season -- TJ Simmons and Marcus Oliver have been tremendous in that department. Again, Indiana has some talent on the front seven -- and it's probably why you might be watching on Saturday at some point thinking, "Hey this Indiana defense isn't THAT bad."
Then you'll wait a few more plays -- and think quite differently.
On specials teams, both Michigan and Indiana seem to have quality kickers who are near-automatic from inside 40 yards. However, the battle of the punt returns could be interesting in this one. Generally, Michigan's punt unit has been very good, but Rutgers' Janarian Grant did reel off a 67-yard punt return last weekend. On the other hand, 22 of Indiana's punts have been returned, which is one of the most in football. How would you describe Mitchell Paige's ability as a punt returner? And what are the odds that Michigan's Jabrill Peppers can take a punt to the end zone against Indiana?
Paige is a solid, serviceable punt returner. Eric Toth is a serviceable punter. Outside of Paige taking one to the house early against Western Kentucky, I have no memories that stick out from either side of the punting game. Indiana's punt returner is fine. The punter is fine. The punt coverage is fine. Everything is fine. Nothing is great. It's average. If that means Peppers will take one back, sure. I've got nothing for you there, to be honest.
Fill in the blank: in order to beat Michigan, Indiana must ____________________?
Run the dang ball and get third down stops. Jordan Howard needs to be healthy and have a big day at home against Michigan -- it'll help eat clock and keep the defense off the field. On the other side of the ball, Indiana has to finish defensively. They've got to find a way to not allow teams to convert on the back-breaking 3rd & longs that killed them against Michigan State and Iowa. If they do those two things, they'll have a damn good chance to win the football game.
Prediction time. Michigan is a 12.5-point favorite, but Indiana gave both Ohio State and Iowa scares in Bloomington. What happens? Who wins? What's the final score?
I said last week Indiana is overdue to lay a total egg when healthy this season. They're also overdue to land a big win -- they've come oh-so-close in their last four run-ins with top-10 teams only to come up empty handed.
Here's what I'll tell you: Stop trying to make sense of this game. Stop doing it. Understand: you're about to play Indiana on national television. Nothing will make sense. Nothing. It never does. Embrace the very stupid world of #CHAOSTEAM, and be happy to get out with a win, which you'll probably get.
Michigan 38, Indiana 29.
I've been through this before.
Thanks to Kyle for answering our questions! You should follow him on Twitter here.