Photo courtesy of IU Athletics -
Itâ€™s that time again for IU Football â€“ with the advent of the basketball season, the final clock has officially begun to tick down on Indianaâ€™s 2011 football season. In recent seasons, the football team has captured fan interest by starting the season strongly, only to squander their goodwill by failing to perform in conference play. This year has been a different story only because there was never an illusion that this team could accomplish great things.
Itâ€™s true that fan expectations were heightened. Itâ€™s true that the new coaching staff led many fans to believe that this season could be different than past ones. After an opening day loss at Lucas Oil Stadium to Ball State though, most great expectations for this team were set aside. The Hoosiers have managed one win all season, and none against FBS opponents.
Quite frankly, the fan support around this team has eroded as the season has progressed â€“ some would say regressed â€“ and itâ€™s hard to blame people for beginning to lose interest. There really hasnâ€™t been a complete, consistent team effort all season long. Either the offense has failed to pull its weight (Ball State, Virginia, Penn State), the defense has failed to pull its weight (Wisconsin, Northwestern) or both (North Texas, Illinois, Iowa). Looking back and seeing that the list of either partial of total failure comprises of eight of Indianaâ€™s ten losses this season, itâ€™s easy to see why fans are beginning to lose patience.
However, while itâ€™s a distinct possibility that the majority of the campus (and even the majority of Hoosier Nation) could care less how a 1-9 squadâ€™s season ends, thatâ€™s not going to stop the current players and coaches from doing their best to build some positive momentum before the end of the season. After a bye week, only two games remain for the Hoosiers to end the year on a positive note and according to Kofi Hughes thatâ€™s a huge motivator.
â€œI feel like these next two games could be us getting over the hump,â€ he said. â€œAnd showing what IU football has to offer in the future and trying to show that we can do this and that we can be greatâ€¦ I try to say that we attack every game the same like we should but after losing all these games you look at these as two opportunities to end the season on a good note going into next year.â€
Hughesâ€™ belief in the team is refreshing for those looking for a reason to believe in IUâ€™s chances at winning these last two games, but perhaps his words are more valuable with regard to evaluating this teamâ€™s preparation in this last stretch of the season.
With few exceptions, this is a team with few players who had experienced B1G play prior to this year and with coaches who spent the season becoming more acclimated to unfamiliar players and â€“ for some â€“ an unfamiliar league.
During Tuesdayâ€™s media availability, Kevin Wilson was asked about the adjustments he needed to make to both his players and to the league.
â€œThatâ€™s a great question,â€ he said. â€œI think weâ€™re always trying to adjust to the matchupsâ€¦ learning the league is important but the real deal is learning our guys and learning what they can do mentally, emotionally, where theyâ€™re at and how to reach and motivate these guys in a better way. I think the last few weeks, as coaches, weâ€™ve tried to do a better job figuring out our strengths, our weaknesses, how connect, practice and be in better positions.
â€œA difficulty weâ€™ve had defensively,â€ he continued, for example, â€œis our ability to stop the run, especially against teams who can throw the ballâ€¦ If these guys do that this week, weâ€™ll have trouble. As far as trying to reach our guys, can we make those stops? This game, weâ€™ve got to keep our eyes on our targets because youâ€™ve seen us cut receivers loose and have easy throws.â€
As Wilson alluded to, heâ€™s had his work cut out for him and his staff this season, as heâ€™s played mostly younger players without much experience playing at this level. Not lost in his Tuesday remarks was the fact that he mentioned this weekâ€™s contest with Michigan State differently than he had mentioned games earlier in the B1G season. The Spartans are obviously one of the toughest teams in the conference, but theyâ€™ve looked no more formidable than Wisconsin did earlier in the season and yet instead of giving bold proclamations about going out and punching MSU in the mouth, Wilson is taking a less bombastic approach.
â€œI think itâ€™s a great opportunity for us after going through all of our shortcomings this year,â€ he said. â€œCan we weather a really good shot and make it a four-quarter contestâ€¦ making those guys work and earn a victory against us, giving ourselves a chance to win?â€
While Wilsonâ€™s language this week is perhaps more grounded in reality than some of his statements earlier in the year, itâ€™s also a jarring difference. I may be reading into his language a bit, but he sounded different from the man who exuded a carefree fearlessness of Penn State and Wisconsin before those games.
And so Indiana football appears to have come 180 degrees this year â€“ from flippant players and a staff unaware of what this team was (or wasnâ€™t) capable of, to newly dedicated players but a staff that seems to recognize that this is a group that needs some work. Make no mistake, Indiana is closer to coming together than they have been all year, but they still have a way to go.
This remains a team trying to improve but still not on the same page and searching for answers. They have fewer than two weeks to find them.