Mike Miller is the Indiana beat writer for The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind. Maryland hosts Indiana on Saturday in its senior day matchup at Byrd Stadium, and Miller took out some time to answer a few questions about what to expect when the Hoosiers and Terps square off.
So Indiana and its fourth-quarter struggles. Is there any particular rhyme or reason for this? Can you put your finger on it?
It's difficult to diagnose. It's hard turning around a program like Indiana, but Kevin Wilson has mostly done a good job of establishing a foundation and building IU's talent pool to a level folks around Bloomington haven't seen in years, if not decades. It's gotten to the point where IU can probably compete with anybody in the country — as close games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan attest. Getting to this point has been crucial, but Indiana just hasn't come up with the winning plays that more established programs seem to make. They've consistently competed for three or 3 1/2 quarters, but closing games has proven difficult. It's among the last hurdles this program has to cross. There's a sense that IU is nearing that point, but it may yet be another year away.
This matchup seems to be the inverse of a classic "irresistible force vs. immovable object" matchup. Maryland's offense has struggled this season and ranks third-last in the Big Ten in scoring offense and dead last in total offense. Indiana's defense ranks last in scoring defense and total defense. Something's got to give. What can Maryland do to take advantage of Indiana's defensive struggles? Is there anything Indiana does particularly well on defense that might not show up in the stats?
Some of the numbers are a bit deceiving. Indiana's defensive front has been pretty strong this season. They've given up some long touchdown runs due to a missed assignment here and there, but for the most part IU isn't getting pushed around up front. Defensive tackle Darius Latham is extremely athletic and skilled for a 300-pounder, and he serves as one of the better examples of the legitimate Big Ten talent Wilson has been able to recruit in recent years. Linebackers Marcus Oliver and Tegray Scales have also been really good. The problem is the secondary. It's full of freshmen, including a few who've been sidelined with injuries. Frankly, it's a mess. For years, the Hoosiers have failed to solve their secondary problems and develop their players. This season, for a variety of reasons, it's catching up with them. IU is allowing 341 passing yards per game — that's the worst figure among all 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. I mean, Indiana's secondary gives virtually every opposing quarterback an opportunity at a career day. Entering the season, IU was hoping its pass rush could lessen the burden on the secondary, but the pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been inconsistent.
The Indiana offense, though, is a completely different story. Running back Jordan Howard, the UAB transfer, is having a monster season, while quarterback Nate Sudfeld is up there in a number of statistical categories. Where can they take aim at a Maryland defense that has been improved in recent weeks?
Howard's presence has opened a different dimension for Indiana this season. IU still operates through Wilson's no-huddle, quick-strike attack, but Howard gives the Hoosiers a running back who can grind through defenses and bring fatigue. Howard is great, but IU's offensive line is even better. Left tackle Jason Spriggs and right guard Dan Feeney are future NFL draft picks. These two have helped IU win the line of scrimmage in back-to-back weeks against the outstanding rush defenses of Iowa and Michigan. It's been impressive to watch. You add all of that with Nate Sudfeld's arm and you get a Hoosier offense that, without question, is capable of beating anybody. Consider, the only Big Ten game this season where IU was not competitive was at Penn State in early October. That was when both Sudfeld and Howard were out with injuries. Indiana's offense is once again prolific. Most alarming for opponents is the balance with which it operates.
What is the mood around the team, given the way the season has gone? The Hoosiers are 0-6 in Big Ten play but can still salvage a bowl game. They've also lost a number of close games. How is their morale?
They still believe. I've picked up on some frustration as IU's six-game losing streak grows, but this is a team that recognizes its goals are within reach. They've taken a lot of gut punches — so many in successive weeks that it's impressive how they keep responding. It doesn't seem that morale has fallen too far. Not yet, at least. A loss at Maryland, in my opinion, might be the tipping point. So far, however, things are maybe as good as can be expected. I think simply competing with the Big Ten's best teams has both built and confirmed the confidence the Hoosiers have in themselves.
In order for Indiana to come away with a win, what will have to go right against Maryland? What could go horribly wrong and lead to a loss?
For as much success as IU has found offensively, there are still times when long drives have stalled in or near the red zone. But the offense is not really the concern here. Indiana simply can't afford to let Maryland beat it through the air. IU will give up some touchdowns, I'm sure. The Hoosiers just can't let opposing quarterbacks produce career-best performances — especially over these next two games. If it can do that, I think IU wins by at least a touchdown.