Indiana is, first and foremost, a basketball school. They’ll (usually) be the first to admit it. Why, then, are they so darn pesky on the football field?
Let’s go back to a bitterly cold day in November. The snow is falling to the turf inside Michigan Stadium, Wilton Speight is sitting on the bench, injured, and the generously-counted 107,601 fans huddle for warmth while their minds drift to Ohio State the following week. Meanwhile, on the field, IU takes a 7-3 lead into the locker room at halftime. Darn Hoosiers.
Luckily, De’Veon Smith decided to showoff in the second half of his final game at the Big House and Michigan pulled it out.
Think that was a tough one to watch? Have we forgotten what transpired in 2015 when Michigan last traveled to Bloomington? I’ll set the scene.
It’s a gorgeous fall day in the Midwest. The parking lots outside the stadium are filled with red and white, yet also littered with Maize and Blue. Hoosiers settle into their tailgates so comfortably, the average passerby may wonder if they even plan on heading inside the stadium at game time (the answer is ‘no’, that they’ll wait until almost halftime, and then by that point they better just wait until the third quarter).
A 24-16 Michigan lead at the half was quickly erased, and then the Wolverines had to score on the final play of regulation to tie it up. Forty-thousand Michigan fans ordered blood pressure medication. Then, two OT’s later, Michigan escaped.
I call Indiana “pesky” because, plainly, they are. Many Michigan fans may not realize it behind the easy-going tailgates or the “basketball school” excuses, but the Hoosiers want to beat Michigan in a bad way. And the last couple years, they’ve almost done it.
“What’s different about the 2017 Hoosier team?”
Kevin Wilson is out. Tom Allen is in.
Allen, who was a first-year defensive coordinator for the Hoosiers in 2016, will get his first shot at a head coaching position this year. What did he do in his first season in Bloomington? In total defense allowed per game, he took Indiana from 121st to 41st nationally. Dang.
He’s also made a number of changes to the coaching staff this year. He brought on Mike DeBord as offensive coordinator. DeBord has experience from Michigan (twice) coaching Tom Brady, Brian Griese, and Chad Henne, and coached up Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee (he was good, too).
Allen also brought in Grant Heard, a guy he's worked with before, from Ole Miss to be the receivers coach. To coach the running backs, he also brought in Mike Hart (the one and only). Nick Sheridan, the QB coach and former Michigan QB, was a grad assistant from Tennessee last year.
What does all this mean? Likely, that this Indiana team will be very well coached heading into this home matchup with the Wolverines. (Also, maybe that guys like DeBord, Sheridan and Hart will be so filled with nostalgia at the sight of the winged helmet that they concede the game to their former school.)
“How is Indiana’s offense gonna keep rolling without Kevin Wilson?”
My short answer would be, “just fine.” Indiana has playmakers all over the place. At wide receiver both Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs look to be stars, certainly among the better receivers in the Big Ten. Both have great hands, are experienced, smart playmakers, and they're a great one-two punch with Westbrook's speed and Cobbs' big body.
At running back, the likely guy to get the most snaps is Mike Majette, though there are at least three others who could see significant snaps. This could be a “by committee” type of season, at least until one of them can separate himself from the rest, but the Hoosiers should be fine in the backfield.
The starting signal-caller will be Richard Lagow, a guy who's got a big arm, big stats from last year, but has frustrating accuracy at times and tended to make bad decisions, especially if there was a roving safety around. He could win you games and lose you games single-handedly, sometimes seemingly all at once.
Basically, he was the perfect fit in the Kevin Wilson system. We’ll see if the new coaching staff can harness his talents with more discipline.
Having standout talent is one thing, but being able to matchup with the Big Ten’s best is another. Will Indiana get its points against the Michigan defense? Likely, yes. They always seem to. But they won’t be able to score quick enough to offset what Michigan will be doing on offense.
“Doesn’t IU just score a bunch? They don’t actually play defense, do they?”
Alas, Allen is a defensive guy, and so the defensive revolution has begun in Bloomington (okay, not really, but their defense is getting better).
The defensive line has about a three-deep of big, athletic bodies. They're not Alabama, but this is most definitely the most underrated defensive line in the Big Ten.
Ja'merez Bowen is a name to remember at nose tackle—he's like a slightly bigger Mo Hurst. In terms of potential breakout talent, keep your eye on Nate Hoff this year (a guy who’s proven his value, but is waiting for the rest of college football, or at least his conference, to notice).
The star in the secondary is definitely Rashard Fant, who's a great, athletic, play-making corner. Look for Tegray Scales to lead the linebacking corps. Scales is one of the more athletic linebackers in the Big Ten and his versatility should make it easy for a new defensive coordinator to get creative.
Unfortunately for Indiana, they are still a few years (or several) from having the depth and pure talent to match Michigan. On paper, the Wolverines look like the far superior team, but we’ve seen where that type of pregame analysis has gotten us in the past.
Overall, this is a defensive unit that has tremendous upside, and if it can continue making strides like it did last season, Indiana could see itself with seven or eight wins at the end of the 2017 campaign.
“Is this the year the Hoosiers finally take down the Wolverines?”
It would be the first time since 1987. That’s right—for as many scares as Indiana has given Michigan over the years, the Wolverines hold a 21-game winning streak in the series.
I see the 2017 version having a few spurts and lulls, but giving us plenty of excitement in the end. Can the Hoosiers clip the Wolverines for the first time in 30 years? Not likely.
Harbaugh will have the team focused this year and Michigan wins, 38-20.