Special treat for you today dear readers. Today we're going to do a little Malicious Internet Interrogation with John from The Hoosier Report. Although you will see this is a pretty tame Q&A and not very malicious at all. Really, how can anyone hate the Hoosiers? They're so cute.
Anyway, this is part one. After you read this go check out The Hoosier Report for Part II. (BSD comments in bold)
Before we start talking football, I'm curious to hear your opinion of the Big Ten Network as a Hoosier fan. Penn State fans are generally pissed off about it. In the past we were able to see 95% of our games on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. So far three of our seven games this year have appeared on the Big Ten Network leaving many fans without a way to see the game. Obviously the math does not add up for us. It's a bad deal for a program our size. But for a smaller program that doesn't get on television as often it may be a pretty good deal. How do Hoosier fans feel about the BTN?
My personal opinion? I think it's great, but I'm not sure that I speak for most IU fans or that it's been good for the program. I've been a DirecTV subscriber for several years, so I didn't have to change a thing or pay a dime to get the BTN. The positive, of course, is that for the first time in history all IU games will be televised. Under the old ESPN-plus regime, the Indiana State game and the Akron game almost certainly would not have been televised. The downside? Most of Indiana, like most of most Big Ten states, is served by cable companies that do not carry the BTN (yet). Of IU's seven games, one game (the road game against Western Michigan) was on ESPNU, and the BTN carried the other six games. That means that for the typical Indiana resident, Saturday's game against Penn State (on ESPN) will be the first opportunity to see the Hoosiers. Generally, I'm on board with the idea of the BTN and have enjoyed the coverage, but as far as IU football is concerned, I'm not sure this was the best year for the launch. In the ESPN-plus days, almost all of IU's conference games were available over the air. This year, the Big Ten season is half over, and most Indiana residents haven't had the option of watching even one game.
Now for my question: Having survived the latter years of the Knight era, I know how tiresome the "regime change" questions can be, so I'll try to put a little different spin on things. It's no secret that with the exception of PSU's 11-1 season in 2005, things have been a bit rough for you guys since 2000, with no other season with fewer than four losses (obviously I'm using your definition of "rough," not IU's). You guys play Ohio State at home, and likely will be favored in all other games (including at IU, where PSU is favored by a touchdown or so). Will this year's Lions set themselves ahead most of the post-1999 teams, or will you end up with four or more losses again? And how would Penn State fans respond to a loss in Bloomington on Saturday?
Historically, when you look back at the Joe Paterno era you can see that this program is built to compete for a national championship every three years. So when you look back at the stretch from 2000-2005 it wasn't that different. We held a number one ranking for most of the 1999 season. We won nine games in 2002 and if not for some poor officiating against Iowa and Michigan we would have been a one loss team. Then in 2005 we were two seconds away in Ann Arbor from being undefeated. The difference in that stretch of years was that the rebuilding years were much more difficult than in the past, but prior to 1999 it wasn't uncommon to see three and four loss seasons. So in that sense I think the program is back to where we were and I would expect two or three losses this year. Following the equation you would expect 2008 to be a special year for us. Given that everyone returns except Dan Connor and Anthony Morelli I would say it's looking that way.
I think the Ohio State game can go either way. They have the more disciplined team, but we're playing in Happy Valley so I think it's pretty even. Other than Ohio State, Penn State fans are expecting to win the rest of the games, so a loss to Indiana would cause a meltdown of epic proportions. Things get really ugly in Happy Valley after any loss.
Turning back to the Hoosiers, Kellen Lewis is probably the best kept secret in the Big Ten. He's fourth in the league in passing, second in pass efficiency, and third in total offense. Illinois called it a "statement game" when Penn State came to town. Does Indiana have a similar view of this game? Are fans talking about this game as Lewis' coming out party?
Oh, I think it's always an opportunity for a statement game when one of the "Big Three" comes to town. IU last defeated Michigan in 1987, Ohio State in 1988, and has never defeated Penn State, so it's been a long time since IU had a signature Big Ten win. When the question was posed on the BTB Roundtable a couple of weeks ago, I pointed to this game as IU's most important, even more important than the Purdue game, because it could be a springboard, a huge step toward an excellent season, better attendance, and the like. Of course, when I said that, I felt better about the game than I do today.
Speaking of Penn State, is there any reason why I shouldn't expect Kinlaw and Royster to run for 180 each, to see Morelli attempt about ten passes, and see Penn State win 38-17 or some such thing? On the other hand, how do you explain the increased productivity of the running game the last two weeks despite losing a key player and playing two of the conference's supposedly toughest defenses?
You consider Penn State one of the "Big Three"? I'm flattered. I wish it were the "Big Two." Or the "Big One." But oh well.
When Austin Scott got in trouble everyone assumed the running game would tank. Secretly, Penn State fans were on the verge of writing him off as a bust anyway. He never lived up to the hype he brought with him from high school. He never learned he couldn't shake a defender out of his shoes and outrun him to the sideline in college. Plus he never caught a pass or picked up a blitz. So his loss is not a huge one.
A number of factors have come together in the past few weeks to explain the sudden juggernaut of a running game. The Michigan game was a wake up call for the coaches. They came in with a conservative game plan and ran at Michigan even when the box was loaded with eight or night guys. The result was nine offensive points and a five point loss. After that game they changed the offensive philosophy and started throwing on first down. Iowa and Wisconsin were completely taken by surprise by this and settled back into their base defense in the second quarter. This allowed running lanes to open up. The play calling in the past two weeks has been better than any I've seen since 1994. Of course it didn't hurt that Iowa's defense has been killed with injuries and Wisconsin's defense is vastly overrated. Add to that the offensive line starting to come together after playing half a season together and the freshman Evan Royster playing better than Austin Scott ever did and you have a ground attack that rivals General Patton storming through France. But I don't think you'll see Penn State running the ball 60 times on Saturday. I think they will stay with the balanced attack they have used in the past two games. Expect Morelli to get between 25-30 pass attempts.
If Penn State focuses all of their attention on containing Lewis in the ground game and double teaming James Hardy in the passing game, how will the Hoosiers make the Nittany Lions pay for it? Can they?
Quick trivia question: who leads IU in receptions this season? Believe it or not, it's Ray Fisher, not Hardy. Fisher has 32 receptions to Hardy's 31. If you add in Andrew Means and his 24 receptions, that's three guys in the top 20 in the big Ten in number of receptions. Of course, Hardy is dangerous not because of the number of passes he catches, but because of what he does when he gets the ball. He leads the Big Ten with nine TD receptions, meaning he ends up in the end zone on more than a quarter of his catches, and he averages 19.5 yard per reception. Clearly, if Lewis could throw to Hardy on every single play, he would. I think every team IU has played has doubled Hardy, and that is reflected in the respectable reception numbers of other Hoosiers. The concern, of course, is that Penn State will do it better than anyone else and while not selling out other aspects of the defense. IU has some additional weapons, but if Hardy is neutralized, the concern is that Penn State's defensive backs have enough ability to cover all the other guys straight up.
Your question about Lewis certainly highlights one of the concerns many IU fans have expressed this year, the failure to develop much of a "traditional" running game. Marcus Thigpen is the nominal starter at tailback, but, as impressive as he is as a returner and in the open field, running up the middle is not his strength. Bryan Payton has seen increased playing time in recent weeks (partly because of injuries to Thigpen and Demetrius McCray). Payton has seen the field in only five of the Hoosiers' seven games, but on 49 carries has averaged 4.4 per and has four touchdowns. I know I should leave it to the coaches, but I would love to see more of Payton this week and to let Lewis use his legs as a luxury, not as the foundation of the running game.
So, that's a long-winded way of saying I don't know if we can survive that. If IU can find a way to run the ball between the tackles, that gives Lewis some freedom. But against the Penn State defense, that's a big "if."
This concludes Part I of MII. Please go to The Hoosier Report to read Part II.