To Defeat Huskers
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mike Dickbernd

To Defeat Huskers, Balance is Key for Hoosiers

October 14, 2016

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the East and West Divisions did not yet exist. It was the Legends and the Leaders at that time. With it, the original Big Ten schedule had Indiana and Nebraska meeting in 2015. That changed with the update in divisions.

One season later after that game should have happened, the two are finally meeting again for the first time since 1978. What can the Huskers expect from the Hoosiers? We asked Mike Miller who covers Indiana basketball, football and baseball for The Herald-Times. He provided some insight on what the Hoosiers can do to win and what fans heading to Bloomington can look forward to while in town.

Q: How can Nebraska beat Indiana?

MM: I’m still curious about IU’s secondary. They were terrible last season, though we’ve showed noticeable improvement through five games. Last week’s game at Ohio State was probably the best this defense has looked in pass coverage in years. But there are ways to pick it apart. Indiana is starting two true freshman in its defensive backfield. Although Marcelino Ball has, quite honestly, looked awesome at times playing IU’s hybrid safety position, he’s only 17 years old and has been prone to the expected mistakes. Boundary corner A’Shon Riggins is coming off a strong game in coverage against Ohio State, but he, too, is a freshman that teams may try to pick on in the future. Indiana’s front four, too, hasn’t been able to generate a consistent vertical push.

Q: How can Indiana beat Nebraska?

MM: Balance, I think, can go a long way for Indiana. Like any Kevin Wilson-coached offense, this one has an extremely high ceiling. Quarterback Richard Lagow has a very strong arm — I would argue it’s stronger than that of his predecessor, IU career passing leader Nate Sudfeld — but it seems IU has kept the reins on him since a five-interception game against Wake Forest three weeks ago. Five interceptions? You’re probably wondering why IU is sticking with this guy, right? To be fair, only one or two of those were really Lagow’s fault. In that same game against Wake Forest, he set IU’s single-game record with 496 passing yards, so there’s a belief that this is the guy who can get it done. But for some reason, it seems that five-interception game spooked the coaching staff. They’ve focused more on the ground the last two weeks — much to their own detriment. When IU has opened up its offense in the second half, they’ve found success. Approaching the midpoint of the season, the only real lingering concerns with Indiana’s offense is its ability to finish drives and score in the red zone. Both have been significant issues, and both need to be fixed in time for Saturday.

Q: What has been the biggest reason for Indiana’s defensive turnaround this season?

MM: Schematically, new defensive coordinator Tom Allen implemented a 4-2-5 defense this spring. IU had been running a 3-4 under previous DC Brian Knorr, but so far the 4-2-5 seems to be a good fit. The two linebackers they use primarily, Marcus Oliver and Tegray Scales, are both solid, if not very good players at their position. With those two handling the middle, IU uses an extra defensive back — a hybrid safety. That’s the aforementioned Marcelino Ball. He’s a bit iffy in coverage, but overall he’s an intriguing underclassman.

Quite honestly, I think the biggest reason for IU’s defensive improvement is its approach. This defense was so beaten down mentally by the end of last season. The secondary, especially, was just awful — and I think those guys internalized a lot of the outside negativity and frustration on top of whatever else they were feeling. Rebuilding the mental approach was task No. 1 for Allen when he took the job in January. Throughout the spring, he held one-on-one meetings with every defensive player in IU’s program. He used those meetings as trust-building opportunities, and I think we’re seeing some of the results of that newfound trust right now.

I get the sense that IU players really, really like playing for Allen. He’s a very intense, very engaging coach, who really seems to have an incredible ability for connecting with 18-, 19-, 20-year-old guys and getting them to believe in his vision. They do believe in him, and they’re starting to see real results to back it all up. Takeaways and tackles are the two things Allen preached more than anything during the off-season, and they’re two areas where this team has really delivered through five games.

Q: The passing game is flying high once again, but are there concerns about the run game at this point in the season?

MM: I don’t think Kevin Wilson is concerned so much with either the running or passing facets so much as he’s been frustrated by IU’s inability to finish drives and cash in on trips to the red zone. That’s play-calling and execution, and for whatever reasons, IU is really stalling around the opponents’ 30- or 35-yard line. Even when they get to the doorstep, they’re settling for field goals far more than they should be.

Last week at Ohio State, IU recovered a fumble inside the OSU 20 on the Buckeyes’ first offensive series of the day. IU pounded it as close as the 4, but settled for the field goal. In the fourth quarter, IU freshman corner A’Shon Riggins intercepted J.T. Barrett  in a two-possession game and set up the Hoosiers at the OSU 13. IU wasn’t able to do much of anything with it and turned it over on downs inside the 10.

The ceiling for Indiana’s offense is quite high, but they’re not going to reach it until two things happen: (1) The running game has been OK, but it’s not going to be good enough until IU gets All-American right guard Dan Feeney back from a concussion sustained in the second game of the season. He’s an incredibly strong and quick pulling guard who does so much for the running attack. (2) They need to finish drives — especially those set up by opportune defensive plays.

Q: What are the main takeaways from Indiana’s win over Michigan State? What about the loss to Ohio State (which was a much closer game than the final score would lead one to believe)? What can Nebraska learn from these two games?

MM: To me, the combined takeaway from both games is that Indiana is a good Big Ten team. Like last year, they’re at least competitive against teams above their class. IU always plays Ohio State close, and has recently shown the capacity to hold its own against virtually everybody in the conference. Kevin Wilson has done an impressive job building this from the ground up.

After I took this job, I remember talking to people who were adamant that it couldn’t be done at a place like Indiana. For years, the program didn’t receive the necessary investments. Plus, when you look around the conference, all the good, legacy programs are built through a foundation on the offensive and defensive lines. That’s just the way it’s always been. Indiana really never had that. Wilson made it a priority from Day 1. He hired Greg Frey as his offensive line coach, and six years in I think it’s fair to say Frey is regarded as one of the most respected assistants in the country for building an offensive line with two All-Americans on it at IU.

At the very least, Indiana is going to make teams like Nebraska earn whatever it gets. I’m expecting a good game on Saturday.

Q: This is Nebraska’s first trip to Bloomington. For the fan’s making the trek, what are some must-see/do/eat in the area?

MM: First, let me say on the record that Lincoln is quickly becoming my favorite Big Ten city to visit. We’ve been out that way a few times already for basketball and I absolutely love staying and mingling around the Haymarket District. Fun stuff.

Anyway, I think folks will really enjoy Bloomington. I’m originally from Baltimore, but Bloomington has felt like home since the day I moved in. It’s a classic college town with a lot of different vibes going on. This weekend is homecoming, so it’ll be packed. Nick’s English Hut is the quintessential IU hangout spot. Go there, grab a couple beers on Friday and order a bucket of Biz Fries. There are a lot of really good restaurants right downtown on the square. Kirkwood Avenue is the main drag — that’s where you’ll find Nick’s — and you’ll find plenty to do along there. Trojan Horse is a solid option for gyros, burgers, etc. If you’re looking for buffalo wings and a cool college atmosphere, you have to hit Buffalouies on Indiana Avenue, located right across the street from the IU campus downtown. If you’re a beer connoisseur, try The Tap on the corner of College and Kirkwood avenues. It’s hard to go wrong in Bloomington. It’s a great city — a great place to live and a fun place to visit. You’ll have a great time, I promise.

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