1. Do you think Indiana's 3-1 start and its win over Michigan State were a little deceiving considering the schedule and the fact that the Spartans are obviously in the midst of a surprisingly bad season?
Not really. I honestly believe Indiana is starting to look much more like a decent Big Ten team. Given consecutive games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Nebraska, early to mid-October always figured to be the tough stretch of IU's schedule. The key is coming out of the month with morale intact. Back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Maryland would represent a blow.
I think it's reasonable to say that the Hoosiers are only a handful of plays from being 5-2. They probably should have beaten both Wake Forest and Nebraska, but five interceptions against the Demon Deacons doomed them on Sept. 24. A few too many mistakes and some fluky plays hurt them against then-No. 10 Nebraska two weeks ago. Defense used to be the reason Indiana couldn't put things together in football, but new coordinator Tom Allen has the Hoosiers playing well on that side of the ball. The extra defensive back in Allen's 4-2-5 scheme seems to have helped IU's secondary, while the Hoosiers enter the weekend as one of only two Football Bowl Subdivision teams that have not allowed a run of 30-plus yards. That could be put to the test against the Terps.
While the defense is getting it done, the offense is not. That's what is most frustrating to Indiana and its fans, who have come to expect Kevin Wilson's offenses to score at a much higher rate than the Hoosiers have in 2016. This year, IU's once-great offensive line has been inconsistent at best. It has also dealt with critical injuries to its right side of the line. With that, the running game hasn't found traction. The passing game has also struggled, as junior college transfer Richard Lagow has missed the kinds of routine throws that Indiana needs to hit in Wilson's offense. For IU to fix itself, that can't continue.
2. Has quarterback Richard Lagow's inability to run made him a big and stationary target and has that allowed teams to take away IU's running game the past few games, or is it strictly a case of the offensive line not blocking for both Lagow and the backs?
I point to the offensive line as the primary cause of Indiana's offensive woes. IU was forced to play without an NFL-caliber right side after All-American right guard Dan Feeney (concussion) and right tackle Dimitric Camiel (back) were lost to injuries after the second game. Though he was expectedly rusty, Feeney returned last week at Northwestern. Camiel could be gone for the year. To me, the most impressive thing Wilson has done as Indiana's coach is build the offensive line into one of the Big Ten's best units during the past couple years. Last season, in addition to Feeney, IU also enjoyed All-American left tackle Jason Spriggs, who is now with the Green Bay Packers. This season, adjusting to life without both players took some time.
IU is starting a true freshman at left tackle, while left guard Wes Martin and center Wes Rogers have both been inconsistent. New right tackle Brandon Knight is now playing his third position in a year and a half. He came to college as a left tackle and played most of last season at tight end. Feeney is an incredibly quick and athletic pulling guard that really makes Indiana's running game go. The thought is that once he regains his conditioning over the coming weeks, IU might open more running lanes and get this offense back to its previous form.
3. Given the general apathy toward Indiana football over the years among students and alums, especially as the start of the basketball season approaches, what kind of crowd do you expect for a less-than-marquee opponent in Maryland and could that factor into the outcome?
Memorial Stadium has an official capacity of 52,929. IU seldom comes close to filling the place, and I'd be surprised if there were more than 35,000-40,000 fans actually in attendance this weekend. This Indiana team carried plenty of potential into this season, but has so far mostly produced disappointment. Dropping winnable home games against Wake Forest and Nebraska only feeds the frustration. IU basketball held its annual Hoosier Hysteria event — think Maryland Madness — last weekend so a large faction of IU supporters have already turned to basketball. Maryland, still a fairly new Big Ten entrant, isn't going to generate a lot of interest around here.
4. Kevin Wilson seemed to be on the brink of turning the program around last year with the first bowl appearance in awhile. Is this just a case of how difficult it is to get over the hump in the Big Ten East, and should DJ Durkin be paying close attention to Wilson's career in Bloomington?
The Big Ten East is going to be a beast for the lower-tier teams like Maryland, Indiana, Rutgers and Purdue. But, in terms of IU, I also see a lot of misfortune. The Hoosiers could've had a shot at a bowl in 2014, but they lost their first- and second-team quarterbacks in the same October game at Iowa. Career passing leader Nate Sudfeld would be here this season as a fifth-year senior, except that he had to burn his redshirt early in 2012 when former starter Tre Roberson broke his leg in the second game. Now, Indiana finally has a pretty good defense, and its offense is playing as poorly as it has in Kevin Wilson's six years as coach. It seems like it's always one thing after another for Indiana, which has recruited relatively well under Wilson, but still hasn't been great in that respect. Coming into the season, I thought Indiana had a ceiling of seven wins. Heck, it may still get there. But the margin for error here is always thin. Injuries and missed opportunities in winnable games only further shrink those margins in the Big Ten East.
5. Considering how the Hoosiers have struggled to score points the past three games, do you expect the trend of the road team winning in the first two years of this series to continue Saturday in Bloomington?
Tough to say, but I do see this as a must-win game for Indiana's postseason aspirations. The Hoosiers still have beatable opponents in Rutgers and Purdue remaining on the schedule. A home game against Penn State next month may also be within IU's reach. But Indiana needs to change the tenor of its season before it's too late. The Hoosiers' offense is a mess, and until quarterback Richard Lagow shows better accuracy and the offensive line starts blocking with more consistency, I don't see this team doing much of anything. If IU can improve in those two areas, it can play with anybody. But last Saturday was IU's worst game of the season, and I'm curious to see what degree of improvement it can show in the course of seven days.