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Know thy Opponent 2008: Indiana Hoosiers

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It’s a rivalry again.

With one long kick last season, Indiana’s Austin Starr not only cemented a Hoosier return to the postseason after 13 long years, but he made sure that the Indiana-Purdue football rivalry would stay alive. In recent years Purdue has made the rivalry even more one-sided than it once was. Before Starr’s kick, Purdue had won 9 of 10 against the Hoosiers, often in dominating fashion. The Hoosiers were galvanized to play 13 in honor of Hep, however, and rode a capacity crowd to victory over their fiercest rival.

In a way, I was a little envious when I left Memorial Stadium last fall. Seeing Indiana celebrate the return of the Bucket and a postseason bid is something Purdue has not done since going to the Rose Bowl. Sure, they were crappy bowl games both the Hoosiers and Boilers played in, but where we have come to take certain bowls for granted, Indiana was desperate for even a small measure of success. They deserved their celebration, and a part of me was happy for them.

That being said, they still have our Bucket. One thing Tiller has done is make sure that Purdue fans feel the Bucket is a right. Under his watch it has been in West Lafayette far longer than it has been in Bloomington, therefore it feels wrong when it is gone. Throughout the offseason I have wondered how often, if ever we have had the Shillelagh and the Cannon, but not the Bucket. Because of Indiana’s schedule they could go bowling again, but with November 22nd being coach Tiller’s final game in West Lafayette I have a hard time seeing the Bucket taking up a more permanent residence to the south.

Last Season for the Hoosiers

Purdue finished at 7-5, 3-5 in the Big Ten and it was a colossal disappointment. We beat Notre Dame, went to a bowl and won it, but the season was viewed as a failure. Indiana finished an identical 7-5, 3-5 in the conference and it was the best season in more than a decade. They rushed the field, tried to tear down the goal posts, and celebrated like they were heading to Pasadena.

The long-awaited trip to the Insight Bowl nearly didn’t happen. After the Hoosiers rode a weak early schedule to a 5-1 start, losses to Michigan State, Penn State, and Wisconsin brought them back to earth. The Hoosiers then beat Ball State to clinch preliminary bowl eligibility before Starr’s kick gave them their needed 7th win. Even with the loss, the Bucket game was one of the best I have ever attended. Like Purdue, however, the Hoosiers struggled against good teams. Indiana had a few wins over bowl-bound teams in Purdue and Ball State (making them the de facto Indiana state champion since Purdue beat Notre Dame?), but generally struggled against the really good with losses to Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois. The Penn State game was close at 36-31, and would have been Indiana’s biggest win in decades.

Many are saying an easy schedule all but assures the Hoosiers will go bowling again in 2008. I tend to disagree. Yes the Hoosiers have 8 home games and don’t leave Bloomington until a not that difficult trip to Minnesota the first week in October, but a couple of non-conference opponents could be sneaky good. Ball State and Central Michigan will battle to be the best in the MAC this year and are more than capable of beating Indiana. Western Kentucky (new to D-1A) and Murray State are easy wins. The Hoosiers are capable of defending the rock for home conference games against Iowa and Northwestern, but Wisconsin and Michigan State will be more difficult. The only road trips are a mixed bag with Minnesota, Illinois, Penn State, and Purdue each at a different level of difficulty. If Indiana does what it is expected to do another bowl bid is possible, but a 4-0 non-conference record is essential.

Indiana offense

The best news Indiana fans could have gotten was that Kellen Lewis was fully reinstated. Rumors have been running rampant as to what exactly he was suspended for, with cocaine being the one I have seen multiple times. What happened is between Lewis and the IU athletic department, so nothing further needs to be said on that. His return is huge. It means Indiana can seriously think of 8 wins as opposed to 4. The last player of his caliber in Bloomington was Antwaan Randle-El. Lewis, though, has more weapons around him, thereby making Indiana better. Lewis was one of the most dangerous players in the nation last season with a team high 736 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns. He was also pretty good with his arm, throwing for 3,043 yards and an additional 28 scores. It remains to be seen how missing spring practice will affect him as Indiana wants to go with more no-huddle, but Lewis is plainly a handful on his own.

Helping him in the backfield will be the speedy Marcus Thigpen. Thigpen is a dangerous kickoff returner with speed to burn, holding the school record in the 100 meter dash. As a running back, Thigpen struggled – except against Purdue. Thigpen rushed for just 568 yards and didn’t find the endzone, but thanks to Purdue’s defense nearly a quarter of those yards came in the Bucket game. In that game, our defense often acted like it had never seen a simple halfback draw, let alone thought it was a legal play as Thigpen torched the Boiler offense for a career day yardage-wise.

Much of Indiana’s offensive success left in the person of James Hardy thanks to the first round of the NFL draft. Hardy simply put up irreplaceable numbers last year with 79 catches for 1,125 yards and 16 scores before shuffling off to Buffalo. James Bailey (26-268-2) opted to transfer and Andrew Means (48-559-0) has been playing baseball all summer, raising questions on if he will return. Should he not come back the Hoosiers will just about as thin as we currently are in terms of returning receivers. Thigpen was an effective pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Ray Fisher (52-482-4) should help ease things a bit, but Indiana will be hard pressed to find someone who can duplicate Hardy’s numbers. Terrence Turner and Brandon Walker-Roby should also contribute.

The offensive line was a point of emphasis during Terry Hoeppner’s time in Bloomington. Those recruits should start to pay dividends this season, but as a whole the unit still surrendered 31 sacks last season. If you take away the yardage lost on sacks Lewis was a 1,000-yard rusher as well as a 3,000 yard passer. The 2008 version of the offensive line will feature a number of those young recruits, but in terms of sheer size the Hoosiers are finally on par with most of the Big Ten. All five current starters according to the Peegs depth chart are over 300 pounds and should they have a good year all will be back in 2009. Since the offensive line is so critical to success in football this could mean a big 2009. All five starters are at least 6’5" as well for plenty of vertical size. Roger Saffold and Mike Stark are in line to man the tackles positions, while Pete Saxon and Cody Faulkner are slated to be the guards. Sophomore center Alex Perry may be the best of the group. Much of the depth is also young, with backup guard Kenny Love being the only senior.

Indiana defense

One of the things that scares me about Indiana is the fact that they may be a better defensive team in 2008 after such a dangerous year offensively in 2007. Indiana gave up an average of 28 points per game in 2007, but that number should improve thanks to a number of playmakers that return on the defensive side of the ball. In the long awaited bowl game the defense was virtually non-existent in the first half against Oklahoma State, but that likely won’t be the case for long as the Hoosiers have the makings of a living, breathing Big Ten caliber defense.

A big reason for that hope is the return of defensive end Greg Middleton. Middleton had a monster sophomore season as one of the best defensive ends in the country with 50 tackles and an eye-popping 16 sacks. We must be especially concerned about him in this year’s Bucket game, as he will be out to make his final game against coach Tiller a special one after the comments Joe made following his recruiting process. We certainly had enough trouble against him last year, so I can’t imagine facing him with any extra motivation. Over half of Indiana’s 31 sacks came from Middleton. He’ll be helped on the other end by Jammie Kirlew, who had a pretty good 2007 himself with 57 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Tackles Deonte Mack and Greg Brown also saw action, with Brown notching 50 tackles as a starter. This may be the best and most experienced defensive line the Hoosiers have ever had.

Will Patterson returns to anchor what is a pretty experienced linebacking corps. Patterson was second on the team with 104 tackles and also had a pair of sacks to go with an interception. It seems like he has been in Bloomington forever, but he’s only a junior with plenty of starting experience. He has plenty of size and is a speedy guy in the mold that coach Hep tried to create. Joining him at linebacker will be senior Geno Johnson and junior Matt Mayberry. Both played in all 13 games a season ago, so as a whole the defensive front seven has more experience than a number of teams. The two combined for 100 tackles a year ago.

Where Indiana faces a number of questions on the defensive side of the ball is the secondary, where both starting corners must be replaced. Considering that Indiana had some pretty good talent there, it is not an easy fix. Tracy Porter took his team high six interceptions to the NFL as a second round pick, while Leslie Majors is also gone. That leaves senior Chris Phillips and junior Bruce Hampton as the likely starters. Phillips only had 12 tackles a year ago, but notched three interceptions in more of a nickel back role. Hampton did not notch any defensive statistics, so you can bet he will be picked on early and often. Safeties Austin Thomas and Nick Polk were two of Indiana’s top five tacklers last season, giving the Hoosiers eight returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. Thomas led the Hoosiers with 112 stops, while Polk hade 74. Both will need to maintain this high level of play as the corners adjust to their starting roles.

Indiana Special Teams

Austin Starr was one of the best kickers in the nation a year ago. He only missed a pair of field goals all season, with one of them coming in the Bucket game against us. Unfortunately, his longest kick of the season was the 49-yarder that gave the Hoosiers the Bucket for the first time since 2001. He was 21 of 23 on the season, and is one of the favorites to take home the Groza award in 2008. He is also a solid kickoff specialist with 15 touchbacks and holding opponents to a 22 yard return average. Considering the Hoosiers gave up a touchdown return a season ago, those are good numbers.

Redshirt freshman Chris Hagerup will move into the punter’s role after Michael Hines graduated. He only had a 39 yard average per kick, so this is an even bigger question mark now. Fortunately coverage was not an issue on punts for the Hoosiers as they gave up less than 6 yards per return. Speaking of the return game, the Hoosiers have a dangerous one with Thigpen slated to return kicks. He didn’t take one to the house last year, but he had several in 2006. He will be dangerous any time he touches the ball in space. Ray Fisher will likely return punts.

Intangibles

There is no doubt the overall talent level has improved in Bloomington. Now that Indiana has finally broken through and made it to the postseason they will have loads of confidence that was missing before. You could see that in 2006 when a bowl game was in sight before a three game losing streak to finish the season delayed it by a year. Indiana knows it can make the postseason now, and with the experience they have plus an easy schedule the potential is there for a great year. I do not see why so many are underestimating this team especially with the experience back on the defensive side of the ball.

Ironically, one of the biggest questions marks the Hoosiers face is coaching. Bill Lynch earned the right to be the head man, but wasn’t overwhelmingly successful in his last stint at Ball State. Still, the similarities between Indiana right now and Purdue after the 1997 are eerie. Both teams had just broken 13 year bowl droughts (against Oklahoma State no less). Indiana has the beginnings of a great offensive line like we had in 2000. They also have a singular talent at quarterback that can do everything. An improving defense is also a good step. I wouldn’t exactly make reservations for Pasadena in 2010 yet, but Indiana is better. They are on their way out of the Big Ten basement. At the very least, they are far from the same old Indiana everyone beats up on. They are now a dangerous team that is a threat every week.

Game Outlook

I originally thought this would be an easy game for us. There will be emotion as it is Tiller’s final game in West Lafayette. He has never lost to the Hoosiers in Ross-Ade, as the immortal Jim Colletto was the last to lose to Indiana at home in 1996 (while the Hoosiers were on a 15 game Big Ten losing streak, no less). Ironically, it was Colletto’s final game with the Boilers. Tiller has had just a little more success and will be let go with slightly more positive feelings. All the signs are pointing to this being like the 2000 game, when there was no freaking way we were losing.

After looking at this preview, however, I am beginning to think differently. I still think emotion will be in our favor, but the talent gap is a lot closer than it has ever been at any time during Joe’s tenure. Indiana is a dangerous team that is capable of spoiling the party. Marcus Thigpen ran for 140 yards against us last year after only having 428 in the other 12 games combined. We also didn’t exactly have an answer for Kellen Lewis or Greg Middleton. Indiana probably would have won two years ago if not for one of the ugliest displays of football ever seen when they matched us turnover for turnover. A Thigpen fumble near the goal line was a huge difference maker then.

Indiana hasn’t won consecutive buckets since 1993-94, but they would love nothing more than to spoil this party. Remember, it’s officially a rivalry again.

Prediction

I still think we win this game, and it clinches a final bowl bid for us. To this point I have us winning games over Northern Colorado, Central Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan State. I also have close losses that could go either way against Oregon, Notre Dame, Penn State, and Michigan. We may need this one to secure a bowl game, and with it being Joe’s final game I think we get it. It will not be as easily as people think. Last year was he best Bucket game in years. This year will be similar, with a different result. Purdue 31, Indiana 28