The last time Indiana reached back to back bowl games, Nirvana released “Nevermind.” Yeah, it’s been a while.
The Hoosiers sit on the brink of making it happen again. After earning a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl last season, they’re one win away from bowl eligibility.
Indiana owns a 5-4 record heading into Saturday’s meeting with surging Penn State (noon ET, ABC/ESPN2). It then travels to Michigan before playing host to rival Purdue in the regular-season finale.
Penn State (7-2 overall, 5-1 Big Ten) and Michigan (9-0, 6-0) will be heavily favored to beat the Hoosiers. Purdue (3-6, 1-5) will not.
Indiana is trying to establish itself as a stable program for the first time since the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That’s a lot of weight for the players to carry.
“It’s hard because they’re going to read, listen, everybody has got Twitter, everybody follows whatever, so they’re going to hear comments,” coach Kevin Wilson told reporters Monday in Bloomington. “You just can’t make sure that the comments distract you from you doing your job, and our job is we’ve got to prepare and play well because if we don’t play better than last week, we’re not going to have a good outing Saturday.”
The Hoosiers trailed Rutgers, who is winless in the Big Ten, 17-13, at halftime last weekend. They rallied for a much-needed 33-27 victory.
Indiana turned the ball over four times (two interceptions, two fumbles) against the Scarlet Knights. It could have been worse. It recovered two of its fumbles.
“We’re not going to win with that kind of play this week or any week moving forward with a rival game and a road game and a tremendous team coming this week with a three-game stretch. We’ve got a lot to clean up,” Wilson said.
Special teams will be one of the main areas being addressed this week. The Hoosiers must correct a field-goal unit that allowed two kicks to be blocked at Rutgers.
Griffin Oakes, the 2015 Big Ten Kicker of the year, also missed a 42-yard attempt. It came after the two blocks.
“I think our kickers are getting a little psychotic and we’ve got to work through the mental demon,” Wilson said, “but I don’t think I need to pound the kids’ legs because there’s only so many swings in that leg, so we’ll work some fundamental work and we’ll get it addressed with either scheme or personnel.”
Penn State blocked two field goals in its upset win over Ohio State last month. The Nittany Lions have improved as much as any Big Ten team this year and arrive in Bloomington as a 6.5-point favorite. They’ve won five games in a row.
Much of Penn State’s success recently can be traced back to an improving defense. It starts on the line, which is leading the way for a unit ranked second in the conference in sacks (3.0 per game).
Protecting quarterback Richard Lagow this week is a point of emphasis for Indiana, which allowed two sacks against Rutgers.
“(The Nittany Lions) pick their spots to blitz, and they do pressure, but it’s really just their front,” Wilson said. “In some of these games they’ve done a really good job of getting the team one-dimensional and getting them in situations, and then their D-line is really just pushing the pocket and playing hard. They’re playing a lot of guys defensively.”
The coach is trying to keep his team’s attention focused on a gifted opponent. He doesn’t want this group thinking about returning the program to back to back bowls for the first time in 25 years.
“You approach each game and do what you can to win each game, and you don’t look at the total, you don’t look at what’s to come. It’s just, here’s today and here’s the plan for this week,” Wilson said.