All season, Indiana’s coaching staff have been telling reporters and anyone else who would listen that the Hoosiers are better than everyone thinks they are. Kevin Wilson and his assistants have continually said that the team is “gaining on it,” and that they were very close to “getting over the hump.”
So were there any “I-told-you-so’s” at Tuesday’s press conference? Not so much, actually.
It may have been an attempt to keep the Hoosiers grounded after their first Big Ten victory since 2010 or it may have simply been an honest assessment of the video. It may have been a combination of the two. One way or the other, IU coach Kevin Wilson and co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler said the Hoosiers’ offensive and defensive performances respectively in the 31-17 win over the Fighting Illini were the worst of the season.
“Our common theme pushing over a year now is constant daily improvement,” Wilson said. “We’ve had some shortcomings, we’ve wanted them to keep coming. Now we’ve had a positive. Let’s not look with rose-colored glasses. Let’s look and see where our timing’s off in the pass game. Protection can be better. Perimeter blocking. Back-side reach blocking. Missed tackles. Getting off of blocks. We’ve created some plays, but we also missed some plays defensively. That’s been our theme.”
Wilson does have a number of statistics that he can point to that show that just because Saturday was IU’s first Big Ten victory, that doesn’t mean it was a great performance. Their 292 yards of total offense was a season-low, as was their 171 passing yards. Though the run game got rolling on a six-play, 60-yard drive in the fourth quarter that put the game away, the Hoosiers still finished with 121 yards on the ground on 42 carries, a paltry average of 2.9 per carry. They converted just once on 13 3rd down opportunities.
The Hoosiers were very much aided by miscues by Illinois, and Wilson pointed that out. The Fighting Illini fumbled a punt and also had another fumble which led to an easy 10 points for Indiana. They also committed eight critical penalties for 81 yards.
“You go 1 of 13, you’re not gonna perform well,” Wilson said. “You have 14 missed tackles, that’s gonna haunt you. They missed a couple shots. They had the opportunity to make a play or two that they missed. You don’t want to rely sometimes on a team giving you a game. You need to keep pushing and keep working.”
IU co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler said the same thing about IU’s defense. The Hoosiers recorded seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss and surrendered 17 points, a season-low for Indiana against conference teams, but Ekeler wasn’t happy about the defensive effort at all. That’s slightly surprising, considering he defended the Hoosiers when they gave up 704 yards to Northwestern, but criticized the group for yielding 372 to Illinois.
“I thought we were very sluggish coming off the Navy game,” Ekeler said. “A little bit dinged up, and just again thought we didn’t get off blocks, thought we didn’t play as hard as we’ve played all year. We’ve taken a lot of pride in our effort and how hard we’ve played. It wasn’t to the standard that these guys have set.”
Ekeler was asked if the effort got better as the game went along, especially considering that the Hoosiers allowed just three points in the second half and had most of their sacks at that point. They actually held Illinois to -19 rushing yards in the fourth quarter.
“Nah, I mean, that stuff just happened within the game,” Ekeler said. “Just overall, just the execution part of it, and that’s on us as coaches. That was probably our worst performance.”
The players actually agreed with the coaches’ assessment.
“Michigan State, Ohio State, Navy, I feel like our defense played real physical,” junior safety Greg Heban said. “I feel like our performance last week was a step back physicality wise. We had more missed tackles than we have the past couple of weeks and missed assignments. Overall, we got the ‘W’ but it’s something we need to work on. We need to be a lot more physical, a lot more locked in this week if we want to keep the wins coming.”
More notes from Tuesday’s press conference
— The dynamic of the quarterback battle appeared to undergo a shift in Saturday’s game when starter Cameron Coffman was pulled for backup Nate Sudfeld in the first quarter. However, Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said the competition will continue to go as it has and the coaching staff will evaluate both throughout the week and make its decisions at the end.
“They’re kind of splitting reps up,” Wilson said. “They look pretty solid in practice, but we need to play a lot better than we played Saturday. We’ll see as the week goes. I would’ve said in the early games, Nate would’ve been out there earlier, and he wasn’t. I would’ve told you Saturday that Cam would’ve played better coming off the way we finished Navy. We missed a couple of shots and I just didn’t like the one ball he floated early in the game. I thought it was a poor decision when you’re going on the road to be careless. We just gave Nate a chance. We got the lead, got the momentum and we just kind of rode him.”
Wilson then hinted as strongly as he has that he isn’t really concerned about actually solving his quarterback dilemma. He’s playing two quarterbacks, after all, only because starting quarterback Tre Roberson broke his leg in his second game. Considering that they both came through preseason practice as backups, Wilson said, perhaps neither of them needs the affirmation of being considered “The Man,” and both could use the constant competition that comes with fighting for the job every week.
They’re both good competitors, they are both playing decently, but we need to play better,” Wilson said. “We are playing with the second, and third-team quarterback, because the best one still isn’t out there. That being said, both of those guys need to keep working to get better. It’s not a competition. They’re our two backups. Those two backups need to keep getting better. it’s nice they’re giving us a chance, but they need to play better. We’ve won one football game since Tre got hurt, and the one game we won was the worst performance we’ve had at quarterback. I just want both of those guys to keep pushing.”
The competition hasn’t heard the position much. The Hoosiers are leading the league in passing offense. Quarterbacks/wide receivers coach Kevin Johns said he doesn’t think it’s hurting the team at all.
“I don’t mind the competition at all,” Johns said. “And I don’t think the kids do either. Really, it’s pretty cool, because if you ask the wide receivers and the running backs, to them it doesn’t matter. We’ve done such a good job of rotating those guys throughout the season that I’m not sure that they even know who’s out there playing quarterback. I just think they’re going out there and trying to make big plays. I think there are positives and negatives to each. Right now we’re just rolling with it, and to us it’s not a big deal.”
— Wilson said linebackers Jacarri Alexander and Chase Hoobler should be able to break back into the rotation this week. Alexander has missed the last two games with a stinger and even though Hoobler made the trip to Champaign last week, he hasn’t played since the Massachusetts game on Sept. 8 either because of a nerve issue in his neck/back. Whether either of them will play in front of starters Flo Hardin, David Cooper and Griffen Dahlstrom is uncertain, but Wilson said he expects both to see more action.
Left guard Bernard Taylor is getting some action even though he’s playing with a casted wrist. Wilson said how much he plays will continue to be dependent on his pain tolerance.