Image courtesy of IU Athletics
It was a start that few envisioned.
Just a week after being shut out in the first half and surrendering over 700 yards of offense to the Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana looked like a totally different football team in the opening frame of their contest against the Michigan State Spartans. The Hoosiers began the first half with possession of the football and took all of 77 seconds to stage a 75-yard blitzkrieg that resulted in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Houston. Staked to a 7-0 lead, the defense appeared invigorated, and forced three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game. After a Hoosier punt, the offense found its rhythm again and tacked on a field goal and another touchdown to seize a 17-0 1st quarter lead.
It appeared that the rout was on. Instead, IU again finds itself searching for answers once again after a 31-27 loss at the hands of the Spartans.
While a much-preferred result to last season’s 55-3 drubbing, IU’s performance – particularly in the second half – left fans too apathetic to attempt to explain what they had just seen. As many said on twitter after the game, “It’s Indiana” – a statement with a vastly different connotation when commenting on the Hoosier football team rather than the basketball team.
So, what went wrong this time?
Many would point to Wilson’s decision to kick a field goal from the two-yard line rather than go for the touchdown. At that particular juncture of the game, Indiana enjoyed a 10-point lead and a touchdown would have given them a three-score advantage. Even if IU had failed to convert, Michigan State would have been pinned deep in their own territory with little time to mount a scoring drive before the end of the half. The fact that the Hoosiers suffered a 4-point loss – the margin of difference between a field goal and a touchdown – gives more ammunition to those critics. Wilson disagrees.
“We actually thought about it a little,” he said. “We thought we could bait them into not blitzing and were close to picking (the first down). It was a yard and a half for all or nothing … we had rolled the dice a couple times and needed to cash it in for points, we had too much momentum to give that up.”
Wilson has a point here. Not only did Michigan State defend the run stoutly all day, but at the time of the call, Indiana had done everything it needed to do to control the game. Taking the points allowed them to add to their cushion and go into the half up three more points than they would have been had a very capable Spartan defense stonewalled the Hoosiers as they had done on the previous play. Based on how the offense had executed to that point, it seemed reasonable to expect Indiana to see another opportunity to score. Instead, Murphy’s Law of Indiana football took over and the Hoosiers failed to sniff a scoring opportunity for the rest of the game.
As it was in the Northwestern game, the main story here was the offense’s inability to play with baseline consistency throughout the game. Against the Wildcats, the struggles came early; against the Spartans, they came late. IU rolled up 280 yards and 27 points in the first two quarters of play, but was held scoreless in the 2nd half, with only 37 yards to show for their efforts. It was a Jeckyll and Hyde performance of the highest degree, and one that Cam Coffman struggled to explain afterwards.
“We like to go fast, go up-tempo and it’s really about that first set of plays,” he said. “If we can get going, get in rhythm then we get rolling, if we don’t get that first set of plays then we’re not as good as we should be. We just didn’t get it going a couple of times for lack of execution and that’s my fault.”
“Our strength coaches have us in great shape,” he continued. “So (conditioning) isn’t the problem. Like I said it’s those first couple plays. If you can get it going, it’s going to roll. If not, it slows you down. It’s all about getting that first 1st down and speeding up the defense so they can’t get set and run the defense they want.”
MSU refocused for the second half and the Hoosiers failed to respond – with players echoing Wilson’s assertion that a lack of execution was a bigger factor in the second half than anything the Spartans did differently on defense. All year long though, it’s been the same story for the IU offense: when in rhythm, they’re devastatingly effective. The Spartan defense was considered one of the tougher squads in the B1G entering the season and had allowed 20 points once all season – a figure IU approached after the 1st quarter and had surpassed by halftime. The way they played, the Hoosiers had a decent shot at this game.
As for the IU defense, it turned in what was probably its most impressive effort of the year only a week after its least impressive. Indiana held Le’Veon Bell to 3.3 yards per carry and allowed the Spartans 410 yards – which sounds unimpressive, but is about 300 yards better than last week’s performance against the Wildcats.
“I feel like we’re definitely better equipped to go against a downhill team like that,” starting linebacker Jacarri Alexander said. “We were in our base, so that had me on the field a lot versus nickel when I come off and (Forisse) Hardin comes in. I feel like we play really good against a downhill runner like Le’Veon Bell.”
That Indiana was capable of lining up man-on-man and defending Michigan State’s power running game well enough to win. Yet – once again – they came up short. The Sisyphean struggle the Hoosiers continue to endure would be comical if it weren’t so painful to watch on a week-in/week-out basis. Each of their losses this season – and seasons before it – has been a contest where youth, incompetence or plain bad luck has conspired against the Hoosiers to deny them a win.
“We’ve got to find a way to keep creating energy,” Wilson said. “I took one possession where I was trying to be the cheerleader, like ‘Let’s go.’ … I worry about our football team sitting around waiting for something to happen. We’ve got to keep attacking, make things happen and just keep fighting.”
That quote does a great job of illuminating the job that Wilson is trying to do with this football program. As Jeremy Gray said on twitter after the game, “It’s a building project, not a rebuilding project.” Despite the Hoosiers’ countless chances, Memorial Stadium hasn’t seen a conference win since 2009 and the in-game atmosphere betrays that. Fans who have seen the team fritter away opportunity after opportunity have a hard time keeping the faith, and it can’t be easy for the team either.
Of the players on the roster, only Adam Replogle, Larry Black and Will Matte played any significant role in Indiana’s last B1G home win. This isn’t just a team learning how to win – it’s a team trying to familiarize itself with the very concept of winning without even the benefit of team leaders who have seen real success.
Despite solid overall play and a number of chances, IU failed once again to close the deal and lock up a win. The offense looked explosive, the defense played better than it has at any point this season and the Hoosiers had a shot at a statement win.
Indiana’s start against Michigan State was all anyone could have asked for, but hot starts won’t be enough, they need a strong finish to accompany them – the Hoosiers learned that today. Frantic comeback attempts will not be enough to get the job done, they need a strong start to complement them – IU found that to be the case last weekend in Evanston. Just as it’s allegedly been for years, another loss means another lesson for these young Hoosiers to learn, and all these lessons lead to one overarching – yet simple – truth.
“You’re not going to beat good teams in the B1G if you don’t play 60 minutes,” Kevin Wilson said.
Well said, coach. Time for the Hoosiers to head back to the drawing board.