In this week’s Q and A, we talk with Dustin Dopirak, who covers Indiana football for the Bloomington Herald-Times. MSU faces the Hoosiers at noon Saturday in its Big Ten home opener.
Q: Indiana is coming off their first even win over Penn State and are 1-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 2000. Just how big was that win for this program?
Dopirak: It’s big on a lot of levels, even though I don’t think it’s going to have the same cache at the end of the season as it does right now. At the end of the day, that’s not a great Penn State team they just beat. It’s not an awful one either, and it has a lot more young talent than most would’ve predicted considering the sanctions, but the Lions aren’t as good as they were a year ago let alone in their glory day. Still, it’s one of those wins that makes the fans stand up and notice. It’s a powerhouse football program Indiana has never beaten before. It’s been a long time since the Hoosiers have taken down a Big Ten flagship program — they haven’t beaten either Ohio State or Michigan since 1988 — so the fans that were starting to grumble and get disenchanted with the Kevin Wilson regime have stopped complaining and there seems to be a re-engagement of the student body which was largely absent at that game. But it’s bigger just for the path of this particular team. The Hoosiers needed some positive reinforcement to show all the heavy lifting in starting over and rebuilding the program was worth it and that the optimism they had in the preseason was founded on something. They expected to have built on that by now but the losses to Navy and Missouri slowed a lot of that momentum and darkened some of that optimism. This win brings it back in a hurry and also puts them back in a position where they don’t need another upset to end a five-year drought without a bowl game. The Hoosiers get Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue, all at home. All three of those games are winnable and if they can get those, whatever they get out of the four road games is gravy.
Q: It’s been an up and down roller coaster it seems for the Hoosiers with the win over a good Bowling Green team and then not following that up against Missouri or also with the loss to Navy after a strong performance in the season opener. Is this team ready to get past that to handle being a winning team?
Dopirak: Maybe. It’s tough to say. At this point, it’s starting to look less like a roller coaster situation and more like they simply beat the worse teams on their schedule and lost to the better ones. Missouri and Navy might end up a lot better than most expected, especially if Navy gets Keenan Reynolds back healthy, because his loss was a big reason they lost to Western Kentucky. I think they’re probably better than they played in those games, but I think Indiana could lose the next two games without having bad performances. Michigan State and Michigan have a lot of talent, and IU could continue the momentum and still lose. I think they’re maturing. I think the Penn State win meant a lot to them and I think they’re ready to make a big step as a program. But I still haven’t seen enough from their defense yet — although they were much better against Penn State — to be sure that they’re ready to knock off a Michigan State or Michigan at home. But as I said earlier, they don’t need a major upset in any of these road games to pull off a winning season.
Q: Defense was an area Kevin Wilson pointed out he really wanted to see improvement prior to the season. How much progress have the Hoosiers made there, and who is the key to the defense?
Dopirak: Well, last week looked good, so that’s the first sign of light at the end of the tunnel. The coaching staff made a point over the bye week to simplify the game plan and that appeared to have an effect on Saturday. They seemed much more fearless than they had in previous weeks. But they also surrendered 444 rushing yards to Navy and 623 yards of total offense to Missouri. It’s tough to look at that and say that much progress has been made. We’ll see the next few weeks how far they’ve actually come, and it’s possible they’re ready for what at least by their standards is a breakthrough. Who is the key? I’ll answer that in a few different ways. The best two players so far in my opinion have been safety Greg Heban and cornerback Tim Bennett. Neither one of them came off the field in the Penn State game. Heban joined the program as a walk-on after coming over from the baseball team and he’s become the defense’s most reliable player. Bennett’s given them something they’ve never had as long as I’ve covered the team — a lockdown cornerback. He’s leading the nation in pass breakups. He’s been blanketing receivers and after years of the Hoosiers getting beat deep and bad by big-time receivers (See B.J. Cunningham, Keshawn Martin, 2011; Aaron Burbridge 2012) that has been a refreshing change for the Hoosiers. He doesn’t always take his receiver out of the game, but he at least keeps his man in front of him and doesn’t get beat deep.
Q: Offensively, Indiana is putting up some big numbers in the early stages of the season. Just how good is this offense?
Dopirak: Obviously, we’re about to find out. In terms of skill positions alone, it has to be one of the most complete teams the Hoosiers have ever had, though its young in some spots. Nate Sudfeld, to me, is an NFL quarterback in the making. The arm is there, and he can hit on pretty much every throw. He’s young, so whatever weaknesses he has are about to be exposed in the next few weeks, but he has a good mind for the game, and I can’t imagine there are many QB’s in the Big Ten with a better arm. Tevin Coleman is a thoroughbred tailback with a ton of speed, versatility, size and power and his backup in Houston has plenty of that himself, having been the starter the last two years. The outside receivers in Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes are both fairly complete. Latimer has a prototype NFL body and is the kind that can simply overpower a corner with his size, speed and leaping ability. Hughes seems to just always find a way to make a play. He’s a high school quarterback and just a really smart kid. Shane Wynn is tiny but has a ton of speed in the slot. Ted Bolser has been a beast at tight end. The offensive line, though, has been injury riddled. They’re already on their third right guard with Dan Feeney and David Kaminski having both suffered season-ending injuries. Right tackle Peyton Eckert has a back injury and might have to sit out the season as well. Left guard Bernard Taylor missed some time as well. The line was supposed to be a strength and it really hasn’t been. It will be very interesting to see how that group holds up against the Michigan State front.
Q: What’s the key for Indiana to win this game and what is your prediction?
Dopirak: The biggest things for Indiana are protecting Sudfeld and winning the one-on-one battles on the perimeter with Michigan State’s cornerbacks. I think they’ll have a very hard time running the ball and I think they’re going to have to beat Dennard etc. deep if they’re going to soften up the box at all to establish any sort of running game. And, of course, they have to defend. I know Michigan State doesn’t have the most potent offense, but Indiana has always had a hard time winning on the road and beating anybody who has a top of the line offense or defense. I think Indiana has a chance just because this is so very much strength on strength and weakness on weakness, but I still take Michigan State 28-21.