Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
It was a picture perfect afternoon and evening at Memorial Stadium and the action on the gridiron wasn't half bad either. Weather forecasts had predicated that precipitation could play a role in Saturday evening's contest between the Hoosiers and the Hilltoppers. But the sun broke through in the early afternoon, finally leading to some football-appropriate conditions after a heat-wave during week one and a chill down last weekend.
But back to the game itself, Indiana won a close one, 38 to 35 over Western Kentucky. There were no shortage of positives to come out of the game for the Hoosiers, however, there are still plenty of areas that continue to be a cause for concern for this ball club. Let's take a closer look at some good, the bad, and the ugly from this weekend's contest.
Most importantly, Indiana won another close match up, this time against a team who was receiving votes in both the AP and Coaches Poll. The Hoosiers are now 3-0 for the first time since 2010 and are halfway to bowl eligibility. Their current winning streak, dating back to their win over Purdue last November, now stands at four, the team's longest since the 1993 season. Winning close games builds a lot of character, and I think it's easy to see that this team is becoming much more confident and comfortable playing in high pressure situations. The close victory over Southern Illinois that was lamented by many, could be the reason why this team has begun to thrive in situations that call for clutch plays.
What ultimately led to the Hoosiers coming out victorious was another outstanding third period. Entering halftime down 11 once again, the Hoosiers came out of intermission like a man on fire, outscoring the Hilltoppers 21-0 during the third quarter. This was the third straight game that the team held their opponent scoreless in third stanza. The Hoosiers had two interceptions, both of which the team capitalized on by turning them into drives for touchdowns. Senior defensive end Nick Mangieri also made a big play by blocking the Hilltoppers field goal attempt towards the end of the period.
And as impressive as that third quarter was, it would be easy to overlook the final stanza of the game. While Indiana was outscored during the final 15 minutes 7 to 0, people might not realize that Western Kentucky only had one possession during that final period, as the Hoosiers were able to keep the clock running because of excellent play-calling and execution down the stretch. In fact, the Hoosiers maintained possession of the ball for 10 minutes and 41 seconds during the fourth quarter, leaving the Hilltoppers with no time to get back into the game.
Once again, a major kudos goes out to the big fellas upfront for keeping quarterback Nate Sudfeld upright and opening up holes for the Hoosiers backs to run through. Sudfeld did not get sacked once during the game and Hoosiers rushing attack averaged 4.8 yards per carry. It would be hard to argue that the combination of Jason Spriggs, Wes Martin, Jake Reed, Dan Feeney, and Dimitric Camiel isn't the top offensive line in the conference.
Speaking of the senior signal caller, Sudfeld threw for three touchdowns and 355 yards on a very accurate 20 of 27 passing. This was his first multi-touchdown passing game since the team beat North Texas during week five of the 2014 season. He once again did a great job of distributing the ball, getting nine receivers involved in the passing attack, including all four of his tight ends who combined for six catches and 91 yards.
Making Sudfeld's job even easier is his ever-improving group of wide receivers, especially Ricky Jones, Simmie Cobbs, and Mitchell Paige, all of who scored receiving touchdowns on the night. Also, like I said, it was great to see the talented tight end group get more involved in the passing attack, and it's only a matter of time before one of those guys cashes-in for six of their own.
Jordan Howard did what he normally does, bringing his hard hat and lunch pail to the gridiron and churned out some tough yards, plowing through the second and third levels of the Hilltoppers defense. On the day he carried the ball 31 times for 203 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for only the second time in his career. What's remarkable about Howard, and Coach Wilson has mentioned this, is that the junior running back only gets stronger as the game goes along, and it shows in stats from Saturday's game.
In the first quarter he carried the ball four times for 19 yards and in the second quarter he had seven carries for 29 yards, but it was the second half that he did most of his damage. During the third stanza he added 73 yards on nine carries and picked up 82 yards in the final period on 11 more carries, for a total of 155 yards on 20 rushes in the final 30 minutes of the game. There's little doubt that his grind-it-out running style wears on his opponents.
I won't sit here and tell you that this was an outstanding all-around performance by the Indiana defense, but they did do two things really well on Saturday. First, they made Western Kentucky one-dimensional, holding them to just 84 rushing yards on 26 carries, forcing Brandon Doughty to beat them. Secondly, they made big plays when they needed them most. As mentioned above, the Hoosiers had two interceptions during that pivotal third quarter, both by true freshman Jon Crawford. Also, the team had a massive goal line stand during the second quarter, stopping the the Hilltoppers just shy of the end zone. After taking possession in all three cases, the Hoosiers moved the ball down the field for seven points each time.
And you can't overlook the play of the Hoosiers special teams, who had another outstanding day. Six of seven of Griffin Oakes' kickoffs were downed in the end zone, eliminating WKU's dangerous kick returners. And the first scoring play of the day came on a punt return, 91 yards by Mitchell Paige. And while Eric Toth only punted once on Saturday for 35 yards, it was downed at the Hilltoppers' ten-yard line.
I already mentioned it in the introduction, but the weather was absolutely gorgeous in Bloomington on Saturday evening. As a football fan, you couldn't ask for any better. The speed of the game was also to be commended. Where college games regularly threaten to break the four hour mark, this game took just 3 hours and 22 minutes, largely a product of the Hoosiers long, methodical drives, keeping the clock running down the stretch.
Totally an aesthetic issue that had little to no impact on the game at all, was the Hoosiers newest addition to their helmet rotation. The script Indiana looked great on the crimson helmets, something I wouldn't mind seeing at least once more this season. Possibly against against Iowa or Rutgers perhaps? Whomever made that design decision, bravo to you.
In my 'Numbers that Matter' piece, I mentioned that Doughty had only been brought to the ground three times during the season. On Saturday night the Hoosiers registered a goose egg in the sack column. While it did not cost them the game, there were multiple times throughout the contest the Hoosiers were just a split second late, leading to a completion from Doughty to one of his many talented targets or resulted in a roughing the passer penalty. I know I sound a bit like a broken record, but this team would be doing itself a massive favor by putting the quarterback under duress and forcing him into more arrant throws.
Doughty is one of the best quarterbacks the Hoosiers will face all season, and we said as much during our preseason previews of both this game and when we were ranking each of our opponent's position groups. However, it would have been nice to see the team fare a little better against WKU's passing attack, as Doughty threw for three touchdowns and 484 yards on 35-46 passing. We've said all along that this game would be a great measuring stick for the development of the secondary and they did just enough to keep the Hoosiers in it, however, if it weren't for those two interceptions, the tone of this article could be much different.
There's really only one thing that fits in this category, and it's the final 4:02 of the second quarter. After the Hoosiers had tied the ball game up at 14, the Hilltoppers responded with a two play, 75 yard drive for seven points. The Hoosiers then settled for three on their next possession, which the Hilltoppers countered with another 75 yard drive for seven more points, this time in three plays. Again, this did not cost Indiana the game. However, as much as I like a great second half comeback, playing from behind is not something you want to make a habit of. So far it has worked out and made for some pretty exciting football, but the Hoosiers are nearing the stiffest part of their schedule, and making up ground on those opponents will not be quite as easy.
This is the type of victory a team can really hang their hat on and fans can really rally behind. No, Western Kentucky doesn't come from a Power Five Conference, however, they certainly possess the offensive firepower of many of the top teams in the nation and the Hoosiers were able to do just enough in all three phases of the game to come out on top. This is a game many had circled on their calendar as a litmus test for Kevin Wilson's ball club, and while it did get hairy at times, the Hoosiers made plays when it mattered most and are now just three wins away from reaching bowl eligibility. But something tells me that this team wants more than just to squeak into the postseason with the minimum amount of wins necessary.
It's a long way until Saturday, so enjoy your week and the changing of the seasons.