Image courtesy of IU Athletics
Two weeks after a deflating loss, the Hoosiers road tripped up to Evanston to begin a quest to outdo last year’s conference record. Considering that Indiana went winless in the B1G during the 2011 season – and the B1G’s early-season non-conference struggles in 2012 – that may not seem like too tall of an order. Against Northwestern this Saturday though, even a single conference win seemed far from a foregone conclusion after a 44-29 loss.
The Hoosiers and Wildcats squared off in a different venue last season – a 59-38 Northwestern victory at IU’s Memorial Stadium – and the result of that contest gave no indication that points would come at a premium for either side this time around. IU’s offense didn’t get that memo in the first half. A much-maligned Northwestern defense held Indiana scoreless, and limited them to less than 150 yards of offense in the first two quarters of play. For Wildcat fans who had seen their team allow 42 points to Syracuse in the season opener – and 38 to an inferior 1-11 Hoosier squad just last year – that brand of defense couldn’t have been more welcome. For IU it spelled disaster.
For the second consecutive game, a long stretch of inconsistent, inadequate play doomed Indiana. The Hoosiers possessed the ball eight times in the first half: five of those possessions resulted in punts; one in an interception; one in a missed field goal; and one came just before the end of the half. Northwestern wasn’t stellar, but the Wildcats did generate points on three of their seven possessions which was enough to stake them to a 20-0 lead as both teams made their way to their respective locker rooms.
“When you go our tempo and you are (three and out), it puts a lot of stress on the defense,” Kevin Wilson said after the game. “Stress is they score and you’re excited about a kickoff return, but then your defense is right back out there for a seven play drive.”
The three-and-outs he mentioned were only part of the problem. The emphasis on up-tempo offensive play is one of the central tenets that Kevin Wilson and his staff have brought to the Indiana offense since he took the reigns after the 2010 season. IU’s tempo even made the news recently, as the Indiana ‘Marching Hundred’ was asked to cease playing its traditional ‘1st Down March’ as a result of the heightened pace of play. A press release from the university stated that it was ‘extremely difficult for the players to hear calls and changes at the line of scrimmage’ when the song was played – something that could have been guessed at when Coach Wilson was seen voicing his displeasure with the band when Indiana hosted Ball State two weeks ago.
Over the past few seasons, ‘blur’ offenses – especially the one seen at Oregon under Chip Kelly – have become en vogue throughout college football, largely thanks to the pressure they put on opposing defenses. A fast paced offense is designed to put a defense on its heels, and put points on the board before the defense knows what hit it. When it works properly, a high-tempo offense can quickly erase a deficit or build a lead. When it doesn’t, the opposing offense regains possession in short order.
In the first half against Northwestern, IU’s offense didn’t work properly.
Every first half possession for the Hoosiers lasted fewer than two minutes, giving the Indiana defense little time to rest and the offense little opportunity to find a rhythm. After Northwestern scored on its initial drive of the second half, the Hoosier offense faced a 27-point deficit, and the game appeared all but over.
In little more than a quarter of play, IU had scored 29 points – seven coming from the special teams on a kickoff return from Tevin Coleman – and pulled itself to within a touchdown of the Wildcats. The offense acquitted itself well, and finally gave a proper preview of what it can do when it fires properly – whirring down the field in its first possession of the third quarter, and capping a 9 play, 75 yard touchdown drive in less than 2:30. The Hoosiers hurried to the line again and again, picking the NU defense apart and scoring (as intended) before Northwestern could figure out how to stop what it was seeing.
“People say one side has to step up,” Wilson said. “But when we get an offensive flow, defense and kicking all snowball with that. Those go together and that’s what happened in the third quarter when we made it a game again.”
The Hoosier defense also began to answer the bell in the second half, despite allowing 17 third quarter points. It forced two turnovers and gave IU possession with an opportunity to tie the game in the final quarter, only to see the offense go three-and-out once again. Northwestern scored what would prove to be the game-clinching touchdown on the ensuing possession.
The 2012 Indiana football season will swing on the few opportunities the Hoosiers get and what they do with them. Most of the B1G holds a sizable advantage in both talent and experience over them, and it’s likely that IU won’t be favored in another game this year – Northwestern was a two touchdown favorite.
And against Northwestern – a team they trailed 27-0 at the start of the third quarter – they had a chance to win in the final ten minutes of the game and failed to take advantage. Part of that is certainly an issue with talent and experience (the Wildcats did put up more than 700 yards of offense after all) but despite Northwestern’s numerous advantages on both sides of the ball, this game took its final turn on Indiana’s failure to adequately execute their up-tempo offense and keep the momentum it had built throughout the second half.
“I think they’re comparable to our guys,” Wilson said of the Wildcat players after the game. “They’re just a little bit older, their line’s a little bit bigger and I think they have a maturity.”
Not experience. Maturity.
The skill that allows a team to step on another team’s throat when it has a chance to do so is one that’s harder than most others to develop or recruit. Most people will look at this weekend’s game and see it as a continuation in a tradition of losing, and in a way, they’re right. As has perpetually been the case, IU has a good offense, but is in desperate need of more talented and experienced defensive players. More importantly though, they need to develop the maturity – also known as ‘grit’, ‘toughness’, and ‘intangibles’ – that allows good teams to better take advantage of their other talents.
Under Bill Lynch, it was addressed in passing but never successfully mended, and if Kevin Wilson can’t exceed his predecessor, he will certainly suffer the same fate. If Indiana is still losing games like this one in two years, than those doubting Wilson’s chances of success will be dangerously close to validation. While IU flashed plenty of its youth – its final offensive possession featured Nate Sudfeld (a freshman) dropping a crucial snap and Jason Spriggs (likewise) committing a false start to effectively kill a last-gasp drive – it also showed a refusal to admit defeat. Jacarri Alexander delivered perhaps the biggest hit of the game – an absolute shot on Kain Colter – on the last defensive snap, erasing any doubt that he intended to play until the final whistle.
Plays like Alexander’s apparently gave Wilson reason for optimism.
“I really like our team,” he said, directly after addressing their multiple missteps. “As bad as (today’s game) was, there was a lot of fight and a lot of resolve. With my own eyes, these kids are buying in and believing in what we’re doing, even if we don’t like the result today.”
For those looking for progress from last season, last year’s team seldom drew that vein of praise from Wilson or anyone else. There may not yet be the light at the end of this tunnel, but at least this team no longer finds itself without the tools to dig.