Image courtesy of IUSC video
In one of the weirder games of the Indiana season, the Hoosier football team managed to pull out the biggest win of the season – and the first conference win in Kevin Wilson’s time as the IU head coach.
The game itself was perpetually confusing, as it didn’t seem to follow the predetermined blueprint that most Indiana games skirt: IU didn’t rush out to a huge lead, nor did they dig themselves a quick hole; they didn’t have a stretch of spectacular play, but they didn’t stall offensively or implode defensively at any point either. Quite simply, the Hoosiers played consistently and while that may not sound like a huge deal, it certainly is for anyone who’s watched Indiana play on a regular basis this season.
“We finally came together as one out there,” sophomore receiver, Cody Latimer said with a smile after the game. “The defense made plays stopping both the run and the pass … I’ve seen it in us but it’s special to see it in person. If we play like this, there’s no stopping us. Defense did a great job holding them to 17 points and we put up points. It’s lovely.”
Unsurprisingly, Kevin Wilson didn’t refer to the win as ‘lovely’ – that’s not really his style. In fact, his opening statement was characteristically terse.
“It was a good effort,” he said. “Guys have been fighting, it’s great to see them come back and fight again. We’ve got a lot of work to do but the way our year’s been going, it was nice to get on the right side of the ledger.”
He was asked about a special performance from the defense – which recorded 7 sacks of Illini quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase – and was non-committal, saying that Illinois had worked them in the option game. When asked to evaluate the play of Nate Sudfeld – the true freshman who led the Hoosiers to 24 of their 31 points after a Cam Coffman interception – Wilson was tempered in his enthusiasm.
“Nate did ok, I don’t know that he did that much better (than Coffman),” Wilson posited. “There have been games where Cam’s done good, it’s just the dynamics of the day. They’ve both got to get better and we’ve got to keep pushing them.”
That was a theme for the whole Hoosier team – there wasn’t a particular area that looked really good. Indiana’s defense did get plenty of pressure on the Illini, but they struggled in defending the run and Scheelhaase missed several throws that a good quarterback should be expected to make. Stephen Houston ripped off a couple of impressive runs, but still recorded fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. The Hoosier offense put up 31 points but recorded fewer than 300 yards.
IU played decently, and held control for most of the game – never relinquishing their halftime lead – but they could have played better. What made this contest so unusual was that a less than optimal performance was enough to win a conference game. After coming up empty in their first 11 conference games under Wilson, this win seemed like it should have held a greater significance for the players and coaches who made it happen, instead it was business as usual.
Numerous comparisons have been made between Kevin Wilson’s building project at Indiana and Tom Crean’s rebuilding one, but looking at the way each coach handled his first career conference win causes that comparison to carry less weight. Crean’s first B1G victory came against Iowa in Assembly Hall after eight consecutive losses, and after the game he stayed on the court with his players, took the microphone and thanked the crowd for supporting the team.
Without taking anything away from Crean – everyone knows the story of how much that win meant to an undermanned, inexperienced Hoosier team just beginning to rebuild – Wilson’s demeanor after his first B1G victory as a head coach and IU football’s first conference win since 2010 was impressively understated. He seemed to appreciate the value of the win, but downplayed its big-picture significance.
“We’re trying to be a winning team all the time, not just on Saturdays. It’s nice to have a scoreboard go our way and we want a lot more of those, but our team knows it can win and came out and played solid today … we had a better week than last week, which is what we’re trying to do. We didn’t circle this game, we wanted to play this one as hard as we could and let the scoreboard be what it is.”
It was a landmark win for the program, but it didn’t feel like one. That’s a good sign.