Image courtesy of The Crimson Quarry
Before Indiana’s 2012 season kicked off Saturday night, no one knew quite what to expect from the Hoosiers as they sought to erase the memory of a bitterly disappointing 2011 campaign. Their opener against Indiana State did little to change that.
Last year’s IU team tried an ambitious sell on the Hoosier fan base at the beginning of the year – encouraging the fan base to dream big, refuse to settle for mediocrity and expect success from the team. That plan backfired almost immediately, as Indiana failed to go even one game without a morale-shattering loss – that loss coming to a Ball State team that many IU fans saw as a pushover at the season’s outset.
There were a few bright spots: the development of so many freshmen, including Tre Roberson and Mark Murphy; the emergence of Stephen Houston as the best Hoosier running back in nearly a decade; and that singular win over South Carolina State. Mostly though, 2011 featured a team younger and less talented than the vast majority of the teams it faced. For fans, it was a long slog to the finish line from the very start of the season.
This season started off more positively than did the last, but could have begun with much more promise than it actually did. Indiana held on for a 24-17 win that was confirmed only when an ISU ‘Hail Mary’ pass was batted down by the Hoosier secondary. It was a victory that put them in the win column for the first time since September of 2011, but one that often felt empty as it unfolded.
Indiana State drew first blood on a long touchdown run by running back Shakir Bell – a sight that was all too familiar to Hoosier fans who watched IU’s defense last season – and it took until the second quarter for the Hoosiers to taste their first lead of the season. As Indiana went into halftime with a 17-10 lead over the FCS-level Sycamores, many of the 41,882 allegedly in attendance left in droves, choosing partying over pigskin and leaving an underpopulated stadium even emptier than it had been.
Already, there have been questions about how improved this team really is over last year’s group and there have been attempts to answer that question that shed less than a positive light on the state of the Indiana football program. To be fair, a 7-point win over an FCS opponent shouldn’t do much to inspire the confidence of a fan base, but as any informed fan would attest, oftentimes the scoreboard and final statistics aren’t enough to tell the whole story. Sometimes, less overt measures need to be consulted.
“I was telling the guys the other day that there hasn’t been one day where I’ve gone back and said, ‘I need that day again’, Wilson said after the game. “There hasn’t been one day inside this program where it hasn’t been a good day for us.”
Building IU football is without question a monumental task, and anyone who’s ever undertaken something difficult knows that the best approach is one that uses a step-by-step process and doesn’t look for shortcuts. Kevin Wilson has embraced this approach, and his team apparently has as well.
Ted Bolser enjoyed a record-breaking season as a freshman, catching five touchdowns and setting a new single-season standard for Hoosier tight ends. When Wilson replaced Bill Lynch as football coach, he singled out Ted Bolser as a player who would shoulder expectations and responsibility in his redshirt sophomore season. To put it mildly, Bolser was a disappointment. His production plummeted – he caught only 14 balls and one touchdown all season – and lost his starting job to senior Max Dedmond. Like a number of his teammates, he disappointed. Adding insult to injury, Wilson didn’t shy away from speaking about Bolser publicly, and seldom pulled any punches when doing it.
It’s early, but this year has been a different story.
“(I did struggle to make an impact last year) but I’ve matured,” Bolser said after Saturday’s game. “I think every single person on our team has matured. We’re still a young team, we’re going to grow a lot from game one to game two but I think we have a lot to look forward to.”
“I’m sure every team goes through the same thing,” he continued. “I like to think we’ve worked harder than a lot of the teams in the nation, but we need it and we’re still a young team so the more we do, the better we’re going to get.”
The most interesting part of that quote isn’t the statement that the team has matured; it seems that every team in the country makes that statement on a yearly basis. Bolser references the hard work that he and his teammates have put in and combines it with an acknowledgement that the team needs much more work. The Hoosier football team is far from a finished product, but the fact that players are focusing on the need to improve rather than telling themselves that they’re one or two plays away – a staple of the Bill Lynch era – is a very encouraging signal.
“I feel a lot better (about this team) than I did last night,” Wilson concluded after the game. “Because a year ago, the way we played, we would have found a way to lose that game. Tonight, we found a way to have a reasonably solid start, a reasonably quality win and we’ll build from there.”
Could IU have been more impressive in their season opening win? Undoubtedly.
Will the level of play that they showed against Indiana State be enough to win even a single game in the B1G? Not a chance.
That being said, last year’s team improved, for the most part, on a week-to-week basis and this year’s team appears better at the outset of the season than that one did. Like Wilson said, in a situation where last year’s team would have found a way to lose, this one’s found a way to win. The process has been slow and seldom pretty to watch, but it seems that a more suitable mentality is being forged within a football team that is still obscenely young. Indiana may not yet have a good football team, but they do have a better one. With time to improve, and the mindset to do just that, the Hoosiers have found a decent place to start.
As last year showed, things could definitely be worse.