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October 17, 2013When Indiana arrives in town this weekend, it brings with it one of the Big Ten's most prolific offenses and one of the worst defenses.
Now in his third year, Kevin Wilson, the former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, has helped create an offensive juggernaut that is scoring 41.7 points per game and accumulating 504.3 yards per game. And to prove they're not feasting solely on weak competition, the Hoosiers scored 28 points, in a 42-28 loss last weekend, against a Michigan State team that had been allowing only 13.4 points per game.
In fact, against the three best teams on their schedule so far - No. 14 Missouri, Penn State and MSU - the Crimson and Cream produced an average of 437.3 yards and 33.3 points per game.
Indiana went 1-2 in those three contests and is 3-3 on the season because the IU defense ranks among the nation's worst in scoring (101st, 32.8 points per game), rush defense (110th, 216.5 yards per game) and total defense (106th, 456.0 yards per game) among a slew of categories that create the need for Indiana to put points on the board; in the Hoosiers' victories, opponents have averaged 23 points.
"You're always going to be upset if you give up as many points as we did this past week," defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said.
"You're never going to play great defense if you give up as many explosion plays as we did. We gave up three runs and two passes [of 20 yards or more]. You can't play at a championship level if you're giving up big plays.
After playing Michigan Saturday, Indiana has winnable games against Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue, but if the Hoosiers want to dream bigger than a 6-6 record, and desire upsets over the Wolverines, Badgers and Buckeyes - IU plays Wisconsin and Ohio State back-to-back Nov. 16 and Nov. 23 - the defense has to improve.
"I want some seniors to selfishly find a way to get these wins, and these wins aren't easy," Wilson said. "A couple weeks ago, when we had some success, a message from someone said, 'Hey, Big Ten wins are hard. Enjoy.' And it was from a very respected coach. It kind of reminded me that 'Yeah, we haven't had a lot of those anyway.'
"You want to keep finding ways to get these 'W's so that our fans, our recruits, and the seniors can taste what they're working for."
The fans haven't bought in completely yet - there were only 42,125 patrons or 79.6 percent capacity at Memorial Stadium when IU toppled Penn State Oct. 5 - but if the Hoosiers find a way to knock off Michigan and Minnesota, Bloomington should bleed crimson when Indiana returns home for its four-game November home stand.
"It's exciting. Our fans are starting to expect more. I think our kids are. I think you [in the media] are. That's good. It's what you want," Wilson said.
During his tenure the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma from 2002-10, Wilson enjoyed his greatest success with traditional drop-back passers Sam Bradford in 2007-08 and Landry Jones in 2009-10. Combined over those four seasons, the two signal-callers completed 64.8 percent of their passes for an average of 4,080 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions per season.
Wilson has a passer in that mold, sophomore Nate Sudfeld, and so far the Modesto, Calif., native has impressed, connecting on 61.5 percent of his team-high 192 pass attempts this season for 1,604 yards with 13 TDs and only six interceptions in six contests.
However, the Hoosiers have a secondary weapon at the QB position that demands playing time also. Redshirt sophomore Tre Roberson was IU's starter in 2011, becoming the first true freshman in program history to start under center, and he proved a playmaker in the passing game and the running game.
Roberson, though, broke his leg two games into the 2012 season and received a medical redshirt.
With Roberson healthy and competing in spring practice and fall camp, he was the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, but Sudfeld outplayed Roberson in preseason practice, and has taken the majority of snaps, attempting five times the passes Roberson has (192 to 39).
While Sudfeld will continue to start, Roberson is carving out a role for himself. He had 17 passing attempts against Michigan State a week ago and threw both Indiana touchdown passes, and had 14 attempts in a week-four loss to Missouri.
The redshirt sophomore is averaging a TD once every 7.8 passes versus Sudfeld's rate of once every 14.7 tosses.
"All along, I said we're going to need both of those guys to compete and win games this season," offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said.
"They bring different things to the table. They can both run our offense. They have different strengths and weaknesses.
"We need both of those guys to continue to grow and win football games. We have to simplify their packages and making sure it's not a distraction for the rest of the team."
In Indiana's 42-28 loss to Michigan State, Sudfeld struggled, completing fewer than 50.0 percent of his passes (46.7 percent) for the first time all year while failing to throw a touchdown for the first time this season. He was not picked off but he missed a lot of opportunities to complete passes down field, drawing the ire of fans.
"Some of it is getting guys blocked up front," Littrell said. "When you're getting hit or you see guys coming free, it's not the most comfortable situation as a quarterback.
"I don't want to keep saying he's a young guy because that's an excuse, but we just have to keep growing and get more experience, and the more experience he gets, the more we'll gel across the board, and everyone will get more comfortable, not just Nate and Tre."
The calls for Roberson won't slow, though, if he keeps playing the way he has recently; in IU's last three games, the 6-0, 200-pounder has completed 20 of 32 throws (62.5 percent) for 285 yards with three touchdowns and a lone interception. He has also rushed for 54 yards and three scores on 15 carries (3.6 yards per carry).
"He seems more relaxed, seems to be having more fun," said Littrell, reemphasizing that both will play.
"It's not about who the starter is. Both those guys know they'll play and you never know when that time will come. Go out there and compete, have fun with your teammates. Make sure you're ready and then just go."