In Kevin Wilson’s mind, Indiana’s two bye weeks separated the season into segments that just so happened to correspond with the three months of the football season. The bye week after the non-conference schedule ended September and Phase 1. Last week’s bye week brings October and Phase 2 to a close.
All that’s left is five games in November with a lot on the table for those five games. The Hoosiers sit at 3-4 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten with an opportunity to go to a bowl game for the first time since 2007, but also the very real possibility of a regression from last year’s 4-8 mark. Wilson’s message heading into those five games is a simple one: Keep plugging.
“I’m really looking forward over these five games,” Wilson said at his press conference Monday. “We don’t have some results we want, but these guys have been moving in the right direction. Can we keep moving in that direction. … You want to pound the rock. Now, everybody talks about that as running the ball, right? But the rock doesn’t bust the first time you hit it. You’ve gotta keep hitting it and you’ve gotta keep hitting it, and you’ve gotta keep hitting it. Sooner or later it starts to crack. Then you speed up the process of hitting it and hitting it and hitting it. As a program we gotta keep hitting it. We’ve gotta keep hitting it and this rock will crumble. If we quit hitting it, our environment, our culture, our results stay the same. That’s what we’ve been talking about. What do we keep doing as a program to keep coming?”
Basically, that’s using a different metaphor for staying the course, a counter-argument to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity. It’s a plea for continued faith from the players in Indiana’s system, with a promise that the wins will come if they just stick with it.
That being said, Wilson recognizes that some change is necessary for the final five games to have a better outcome than the first seven. On the defensive side of the ball, more than anything else, that means better tackling and better work on third down, problems that have been lethal for the Hoosiers. They gave up 63 points on 751 yards of total offense to Michigan and now rank last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (37.1 points per game), total defense (498.1 yards per game) rushing defense (221.0 yards per game) and passing defense (277.1 yards per game).
“Look at the number of the last couple of games of third downs that we got that we (haven’t got them) off the field,” Wilson said. “Michigan State made — what was it? — eight, nine, 10 in a row. I think Michigan scored three of their touchdowns on third downs and several times we have an unblocked guy there to make a play. You want to change the scheme, well they won’t let just put 12 out there. We’ve got a guy free and he’s there to make a tackle. Hey, shoot, you gotta make the play, get him on the ground. We just went through talking about conversions, how to keep the ball, creating some more turnovers, some fundamentals of tackles.”
Wilson said he’s not seeing the same kind of tackling issues with every player, so there isn’t necessarily one fix that needs to be made there. When it comes to working on tackling, he’s also trying to find a balance. At this point in the season, players’ bodies are weary after 14 weeks of work and the coaches have been trying to taper down full-contact work.
“You’re at a point in the year with some of these guys beat up, that some of the hitting work you do you end up doing with guys that don’t play,” Wilson said. “The guys that really need it, they’re kind of hit enough, how much do you hit them? We’ve worked a lot on how to get better fundamentally without beating ourselves up. That’s the tough dilemma at this time of year. We’ve got to get so much better blocking and tackling. … How do we keep pushing? How do we keep the energy? How do we keep the effort? How do we keep building toughness and by the way, don’t cross the line and over-practice and beat your guys up. We looked at drills. I watched our guys do some drills and I suggested, not that I have all the answers by any means, but I go, ‘The way you’re doing the drill is ‘Do less and do it harder.’”
Though the offense looks much better statistically, tied for second in the conference in scoring (42.4 points per game) and second alone in total offense (514.0 yards per game) Wilson still wants a lot more out of that group. Just one team in the conference has thrown more interceptions than the Hoosiers’ 10 — which includes two critical picks at the end of the Michigan game —and the Hoosiers are in the middle of the pack in the conference in third-down conversions, making 50 of their 107 (46.7 percent).
“You think these guys throw the ball well,” Wilson said. “But in competitive situations, how good really are you? When we’ve got the lead by 1-7 points, we’ve thrown 39 balls, we’ve completed 19. It’s 47 percent. We got the lead. Our defense has got us the ball. You got this really good offense. Well, let’s go really good offense. Nah, we’re just average enough to keep them in the game, lose momentum and then start playing behind. There’s a lot of things we worked on just in conversions, ball security and how to be aggressive.”
– Wilson apparently spent a significant amount of time bucking up his quarterbacks during the bye week, and had some moments where he wasn’t thrilled with either Nate Sudfeld or Tre Roberson.
“I’ve seen him both have ups and downs,” Wilson said. “I think they listen to the public perspective too much. My deal is, you’re young, and you’re not as good as you need to be, and you need to keep working hard and getting better. That’s what great players do. I kind of felt early they were all fighting to be the player. Some things didn’t go Tre’s way, I think he didn’t practice as well. I don’t know now. Nate didn’t play that well at Michigan State, I didn’t think he was as sharp last week in practice, too. Then we had the weather. We kind of got after them last week like, ‘You’ve got 30-some games in your career left. How good are you going to be at the end and what are you doing about getting better? Quit being so moody and mopey and quit worrying about who goes out there first. We’re going to throw the ball and we got good players and let’s go play. Shoot, last night Cam Coffman was as good as any of those guys out there playing. We didn’t even talk about him.”
Offensive coordinator Seth Littrell was a little less harsh on Sudfeld and Roberson, but also said they need to keep their minds right.
“They gotta understand not to press,” Littrell said. “Again, I’ve said it all along, we’re going to have to have both of those guys to win games for us this season. Both of those guys bring different things to the table. They have to understand what we’re trying to get accomplished throughout a game, how people are playing us. Both of those guys need to go out there and play their game, they don’t need to play each other’s game, they don’t need to press. I think they’re getting more relaxed in the situations.”
Wilson said he will monitor practice closely this week and the way the rotation works could change. Roberson started the first two games, but Sudfeld has started the five games since. However, Roberson outperformed Sudfeld in the Michigan game, throwing for 288 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 50 and a score while Sudfeld was 8-for-19 with 122 yards and a touchdown, but also an interception.
“Whether Tre’s first or Tre’s second, we’ll figure it out during the week,” Wilson said. “They both can run our offense, and when they both get going, they both have looked really good. And when they both have been off, they both have looked very poor. … It’s my job to just keep those suckers coming, keep them positive, have them be good leaders and good teammates.”
– In his first press conference after Indiana’s historically problematic defensive performance against Michigan, IU defensive coordinator Doug Mallory was self-critical but also at least a bit defensive of his general schemes and game-plan and said that the defense is not quite as bad as the statistics make it look.
“I think we’re close,” Mallory said. “We’re not there yet, but I think at times we’re awful close. Just the margin of error right now, we’ve got to get on the positive side there. If we don’t, that’s when we get exposed. I think it’s a finer line than people on the outside maybe see. I think there’s some things that are correctable, things we gotta do better, but I think it’s not as big a margin maybe as people might think. I think the attitude and the effort of these kids has been great.”
Mallory took the heat on some level and said that he and his staff have to take responsibility for giving up so many big plays to Michigan.
“As a coach, you’re going to constantly analyze yourself and are you putting your kids in the best possible position to be successful,” Mallory said. “And from there, it’s are you able to execute? That’s what we’re constantly looking at and analyzing. We’ve gotta do a better job coaching, we’ve gotta do a better job preparing and we’ve gotta do a better job preparing and we gotta do a better job adjusting. That starts with me. I’m always going to start by pointing at me first and going from there.”
But Mallory said he doesn’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong schematically with the defense.
“If you go back at that (Michigan) game, I don’t know if there was ever a time where we didn’t feel like we had a guy in position,” Mallory said. “We had a guy there. Whether it was a coverage or in a run fit. The design of the package, I think, we should’ve had a guy there, should’ve had a guy in coverage, whether or not we had a guy there, that’s something we’re going to constantly analyze and be critical on ourselves. But I think for the most part, I don’t know if we’re any different schematically than a lot of other people. It’s not like we’re doing something so out of the ordinary that no one else is doing, so I don’t think there’s a problem with the structure of what we’re doing defensively. We’ve gotta do a better job coaching, we’ve gotta do a better job developing and we’ve gotta do a better job executing. It goes across the board.”
– Wilson toyed with the idea of burning freshman safety Chase Dutra’s redshirt to use him to fill in for the injured Antonio Allen, who tore his ACL in the loss to Michigan and is out for the season. However, Wilson said the Hoosiers came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it. Greg Heban and Mark Murphy will continue to start at safety and Brandon Grubbe and Dawson Fletcher will work as back-up safeties in Allen’s stead.
“I don’t know if we’d play him that much,” Wilson said. “It would be a complementary role with five games left. He didn’t look like he was ready to crack and be the guy. Plays, how many would you get burning his redshirt year? … He didn’t do poorly, but I just don’t think it’s worth throwing him out there and losing a year of eligibility to play 10 or 15 plays a couple of games. So we kind of ride with what we got.”
Wilson also said right guard Jake Reed is back practicing after missing the Michigan game.