This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
The only team that had a tougher 2011 than the last team we previewed (Minnesota) was Indiana, as the Hoosiers could not manage even the one conference win they achieved each of the past three seasons. Indiana started with a shaky 1-3 non conference record and then were swept in Big Ten play to finish 1-11.
The first season under new head coach Kevin Wilson was all about building for the future with youth. He is the type of coach to tell veterans "my way or the highway," and many veteran Hoosiers and starters left for greener pastures as a result.
However, the Hoosiers will now have an established core of young Wilson recruits filling most of the starting spots, with some upperclassmen committed to the cause. It will be a long road back to bowl eligibility in Bloomington, but progress should be evident in year two for Wilson.
Statistically, Indiana stagnated last season and stayed near the bottom of the conference on offense and defense. The passing defense, in particular, was a real weakness that has been a recurring theme throughout the past decade for this team.
Will Indiana find a way to slow passing attacks this season? Which young players will step up to continue the rebuilding of the Hoosiers? Will Indiana avoid another winless conference season despite a tough schedule? Let's take a look.
Just one year after having too many quarterbacks to play, Wilson appears to have a certain go-to guy in sophomore Tre Roberson. Roberson was almost moved to another position when Dustin Kiel and Edward Wright-Baker won the right to split the starting duties last August.
However, injuries and style of play led to Roberson getting some serious playtime and he became the first Hoosiers quarterback to start games as a freshman. Now the other two quarterbacks have transferred, leaving Roberson alone to build on his 937 passing yards and 426 rushing yards.
Although Wilson brought in a couple junior college transfers just in case the injury bug hits again, Roberson still appears to have the inside track thanks to having more experience and bringing a running dimension to the quarterback position. Don't sleep on JUCO Cameron Coffman though, as Coffman has a better arm and could make more throws to win the starting job in fall camp.
No matter who takes over at quarterback, the experienced and deep crew of receiving targets will help improve the woeful passing game from last year. Although Damarlo Belcher is gone, two of the top three receivers return in juniors Kofi Hughes and Jamonne Chester.
Hughes was the only receiver that could top 300 yards receiving on the entire year, but with a more steady hand at quarterback others should do much better in 2012. Of course, if Roberson is the choice at quarterback, Wilson may run a more zone-read run-heavy offense than normal.
However, Indiana will still be playing from behind quite a bit, especially in Big Ten play. Thus, it will be critical to get the Indiana passing game back towards the 300 yards per game output that was beginning to happen under previous coach Bill Lynch.
The offensive line welcomes back three starters from a year ago and RB Stephen Houston, who transferred in late last year and led the team with 833 yards, will likely thrive behind the experienced and more talented offensive line.
With Houston and Roberson potentially in the backfield, Indiana could create some serious match up problems for Big Ten defenses. But then Roberson will need to take advantage of cheating defenses by hitting receivers in stride when the opportunity arises. If Indiana is to pull an upset or two this season, it will be driven by the dynamic offense.
Defense has never been a real strong suit for the Hoosiers, and hiring an offensive-minded coach like Kevin Wilson usually does not lead to immediate results on this side of the ball. Nonetheless, Indiana is committed to becoming more tough up front and slowing the running games that crushed the Hoosiers a season ago (244 yards per game, 5.3 yards per play).
The first step will be to find some defensive linemen that can plug up the gaps that opposing offensive linemen try to open up to the next level of defenders. Despite losing three linemen with regular playing time from a season ago, three starters return including two seniors Larry Black and Adam Replogle.
Black and Replogle both only had about 30 tackles a season ago coming from the inside of the 4-3 formation, and that will need to improve to save the linebackers from needing to make all the plays. A pair of JUCO transfers will fill in after winning the jobs in spring practice: sophomore David Cooper and junior Jaccari Alexander. Despite being new to the Hoosiers, Alexander could become the leader of this unit right away with his fast style of play.
Indiana has finished in the bottom 20 teams nationally in passing defense the past four seasons, but expect some improvement with CB Greg Heban, CB Antonio Marhsall, and SS Mark Murphy returning this year. These players learned that more physical play can lead to great results, but more big plays need to come from this unit than the five interceptions from a season ago.
Indiana needs to find a way to stop either the running game or the passing game consistently. If that happens in 2012, then a one-dimensional offense may not be able to keep up with the improved Hoosiers offense. With a few more turnovers than a season ago, the close losses in 2011 will become close wins in 2012.
Despite replacing all kick and punt returners and losing a starting punter in August last season, the Hoosiers improved from where the special teams unit had fallen under Bill Lynch. However, the Hoosiers still have a lot of improving to do to avoid putting the offense and defense in a hole over the length of a game.
Junior kicker Mitch Ewald has been solid in both his years so far, only missing six field goals out of 35 total. One thing Ewald could improve on is his range, as any kicks over 40 yards are dicey and any over 50 have been impossible for him so far.
Four punters (three juniors) with precisely zero experience will battle for the starting duties. Hopefully whomever takes over will have at least as good a year as Adam Pines had in his sole season at the position in 2011.
Shane Wynn will return and likely continue to return kicks following a 20 yard per return average last year. Wynn does have some explosiveness and may improve on his one touchdown from a season ago in the return game.
The Hoosiers' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Indiana State (win)
9/8—@ Massachusetts (win)
9/15—Ball State (win)
9/29—@ Northwestern (loss)
10/6—Michigan State (loss)
10/13—Ohio State (loss)
10/20—@ Navy (loss)
10/27—@ Illinois (loss)
11/17—@ Penn State (loss)
11/24—@ Purdue (loss)
Projected record: 3-9, 0-8 Big Ten
The biggest problem with the Hoosiers is the same problem that teams like Michigan will face: a better team and a much tougher schedule. Unlike last year, the easier games on the schedule are now on the road in conference play, and that will make it tough to steal a game.
Expect a stronger start than last year, when the only win in non-conference play came against a lower division team. Despite losing two in a row to Ball State, the Hoosiers should only have trouble winning at Massachusetts in the first three games. Then an important and winnable road game at Northwestern follows a bye week, and that could determine how the rest of the season goes.
If a bowl is to be reached for only the second time in two decades, the Hoosiers will need to upset Iowa or Ohio State at home, or both. A possible road game upset could come at Illinois, although the Bucket game against Purdue in West Lafayette may also be a good one if Indiana improves as the season progresses.
At best, Indiana may steal one or two conference wins this season. However, the schedule will flip to be much easier next year and that will be when a lot of improvement should come.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
That's it for the preview...thanks for reading and now the season is here!