The Indiana preview is courtesy of John M. at The Hoosier Report. Enjoy.
INDIANA PREVIEW by The Hoosier Report
So, can Indiana actually earn a bowl bid in 2007, its first since 1993? The schedule says that it's possible. I don't want to overestimate the significance of the schedule. Overemphasis on schedule advantages leads to people to write crazy things, such as in 2004 when everyone was predicting that Purdue would play in the BCS title game mainly because Notre Dame was down and Purdue didn't play OSU or Michigan. IU begins with three winnable nonconference games: Division I-AA Indiana State, at Western Michigan, and at home against Akron (IU plays Ball State at home later in the season). For the first time (at least in decades) IU misses both Ohio State and Michigan, the only conference teams that would seem to be absolutely unbeatable right now for a program of IU's stature. IU plays Illinois, Penn State, Minnesota, and Purdue at home and plays MSU, Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin on the road.
The 2006 season
For the first time since 1994, IU entered the final game of the season playing for something more than the Bucket. After winning the first two games against Western Michigan and at Ball State, Hoeppner took a leave of absence for his second brain surgery. Under the interim leadership of Bill Lynch, IU blew a huge lead against Division I-AA Southern Illinois and then lost to Connecticut. IU was humiliated by Wisconsin, 52-17, in Hoeppner's return, and when IU fell behind Illinois 25-7, it appeared that the Hoosiers once again would be out of bowl contention by Midnight Madness. Instead, as I detailed here, Hep rallied the troops and IU beat Illinois on a field goal as time expired. The next week, IU upset ultimately-mediocre-but-then-thirteenth-ranked Iowa, and instead of heading to Columbus staring down the barrel of 2-6, IU was 4-3 with seemingly winnable games against Michigan State, Minnesota, and Purdue remaining.
IU fell short, of course. After an expected blowout loss at OSU, IU returned home and spanked Michigan State 46-21. IU had a 44-7 lead in that game, and I don't believe that I had seen IU so thoroughly thrash a Big Ten opponent before. Lest our heads get too big, however, the football gods exacted their revenge, and the next week at the Humphreydome, a really ordinary Minnesota team administered a beatdown as thorough as the one IU administered to Sparty the week before (63-26, and it wasn't that close). That loss put the pressure on. IU lost to Michigan, and then fell at Purdue, 28-19, in a really odd Bucket game. The first half was one of the strangest turnover fests that I have ever seen. Curtis Painter tried to hand us the game, and we politely demurred.
IU showed some promise in the passing game and scored some points, but gave up a bunch. Still, IU managed more than one Big Ten win for the first time since 2001, five total wins for the first time since 2001, and entered the Bucket game playing for more than pride for the first time since 1994. It was an up-and-down, rebuilding type season, but if not for the absence and then death of Hoeppner, IU likely would be a trendy pick to win a bunch of games in 2007.
The best news for IU is on offense. The Hoosiers began 2006 with Blake Powers firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback. In 2007, Powers will be a tight end. Because of injuries, redshirt freshman Kellen Lewis was pressed into duty against Ball State last year. Lewis led an impressive comeback that day and started the rest of the games. Lewis's passing numbers were respectable (completion percentage of 54.9, 2221 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) and he led IU with 441 rushing yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. Setting aside Lewis, IU returns its top tailback and fullback from last season. Marcus Thigpen, best known as a spectacular kickoff returner, rushed for 387 yards and 2 TDs (3.9 YPC). Fullback Josiah Sears rushed for only 232 yards but an impressive 5.8 yards per carry and 4 touchdowns.
WR James Hardy is probably IU's only player who could start for any Big Ten team. In only 20 games (disciplinary issues), Hardy caught 51 balls for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns. James Bailey, Nick Polk, and Ray Fisher also return. In all, four of IU's five top wide receivers return.
Although IU lost outstanding center Chris Mangiero, IU returns a bunch of experience on the remainder of the OL. John Sandberg (RG), Pete Saxon (LG), Charlie Emerson (RT), Roger Saffold (LT), and Kyle Thomas (various) all started at least five games last season. Was it good experience? Who knows. It can't hurt.
One challenge IU's offense faced last year was changing quarterbacks midstream. Blake Powers was a pure pocket passer. Kellen Lewis, while certainly a capable passer and not a "run first" quarterback, led IU in rushing and worked nearly exclusively out of the shotgun. That must have been a tough transition for the offense, and hopefully will not be repeated this year. IU has nearly everyone back on offense and should score some points.
IU's defense was pretty awful last year. IU gave up 408 yards per game last year. Only ten I-A programs (including, interestingly, Minnesota and Purdue) gave up more (throw in Ball State, and IU played three of the ten most generous defenses in I-A; should I be concerned that IU's decent offensive proficiency was illusory?). Only 18 I-A teams gave up more rushing yards per game, and IU was ranked similarly in yards per carry and touchdowns allowed. There were something like 30 Division I-A teams (could you give me some rank numbers, Yahoo Sports?!) who gave up more passing yards per game than IU. The Hoosiers gave up a pathetic 29 touchdowns, fourth-worst in the country. The only respectable defensive statistic is 13 interceptions, which puts IU at the low end of the middle of the pack.
IU does return top defensive back and kick return Tracy Porter, a corner. Porter started his first game as a true freshman in 2004 and returned an interception for a touchdown, and has shown a solid nose for the ball since then. Including Porter, IU returns eight players who started at least a handful of games in 2006, including DBs Leslie Majors and Austin Thomas; defensive linemen Jammie Kirlew, Joe Kremer, and Greg Brown; and linebackers Adam McClurg and Geno Johnson. Again, as on offense, lots of guys back, but IU has to improve every facet of its defensive performance. Despite returning those eight guys, plus two defensive linemen who started a little bit (Keith Buruss and Brian Faires) IU returns only eight sacks. IU's top three tacklers (Porter plus the departed Will Meyers and Troy Grosfield) were defensive backs. IU played lots of young guys last year, but that matters only if they improve.
IU's return game is among the best in the nation. Marcus Thigpen averaged over 30 yards per kickoff return and scored three touchdowns. Tracy Porter averaged 18.6 yards per punt return and scored a touchdown. PK Austin Starr made 12-15 field goals, including 7-8 from 30-39 and 1-1 from 40-49. Starr won the Illinois game with a field goal as time expired. The Hoosiers will be breaking in a new punter, as the experienced but unremarkable Tyson Beattie is gone. True freshman Chris Hagerup, who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, is the only punter on the roster.
This will be a strange season. If we were entering year three of the Hoeppner era, this would be the year in which we would expect progress. Now, we have a new head coach without a long-term deal and with no idea what our program will look line one, two, or four years from now. That doesn't change the basic equation. IU's coaching staff, with the conspicuous exception of the head coach, returns intact. IU returns loads of starters on both sides of the ball. The schedule is favorable. I'm not going to do some grand, game-by-game prediction. Nothing between 2-10 and 8-4 would surprise me. My prediction is that IU somehow will find its way to 6-6 and go bowling for the first time in 14 years. Why? Well, mostly because the alternative is too horrifying to contemplate. If it doesn't happen now, it's hard to say when it will happen.