December 30, 2007

Five questions: IU football 2007

Oklahoma State is back bowling for the fifth time in six seasons and Indiana is back in the postseason for the first time in 14 years. The Insight Bowl matchup between the Cowboys and the Hoosiers looks like an interesting one and it could turn into an offensive battle before it's over.

To find out more about the Hoosiers, we sent five questions about IU's football team to Inside Indiana & Peegs.com staff writer Andy Romey. Read on to find out about what he has to say about the Pokes' bowl opponent in Tempe, Ariz.

1. The big story surrounding Indiana's football program this season has been getting to that 13th game and honoring the memory of their coach, Terry Hoeppner. How has the team dealt with this all season and what's it been like for the players?
Romey: As far as dealing with Terry Hoeppner's death, the team has stuck all year to the "one game at a time," which has largely been preached by Bill Lynch and the rest of the coaching staff. From what I've heard and what I know, Lynch has laid off the "Win for the Gipper" type speeches and has only really brought up Hep's name with the team I think a couple times this season - one of which I believe was the night before the Ball State game when IU got its sixth win to become bowl eligible.

Obviously, the tragic sentiments surrounding the season have still made for some pretty emotional moments. During the first game of the season against Indiana State a lot of the players had tributes planned for Hoeppner when they scored touchdowns. Things also got pretty emotional after the Ball State win and of course the Purdue win, which was the final victory of the season. It was the first time Indiana had beaten the Boilermakers in six years and in doing so the team picked up a seventh win, guaranteeing itself an appearance in a bowl for the first time in 14 years. The atmosphere was pretty emotional during and after the game. Hoeppner's name was brought up frequently during the postgame press conference, and I think the fans even cheered it during the game as well.

2. It appears that IU has a fun offense and two pretty potent forces in quarterback Kellen Lewis and wide receiver James Hardy. What exactly should OSU fans look for out of the IU offense?
Romey: Fun is probably a good adjective to describe IU's offense. The offensive coordinators don't call a lot of trick plays, but there are some exotic formations Indiana likes to run. Offensively, the Hoosiers bare a lot of resemblance to West Virginia. Both teams run the spread, and both like to run out of the shotgun formation. To move the ball on the ground, the offense usually uses a QB read type play where Kellen Lewis either hands it off to the running back for an inside run or he keeps it himself and runs to the outside. When Kellen keeps it he is usually a threat to pick up big chunks of yardage. The play was especially effective against Purdue because the Boilermaker coaching staff made the decision to protect against Kellen keeping the ball and running to the outside. This opened up the inside handoff and gave running back Marcus Thigpen a career day running the ball. I'd imagine Oklahoma State will have to make a similar decision in deciding how to defend against the read.

As far as IU's passing game, really anyone who is eligible to catch the ball is used as a receiver. Even fullback Josiah Sears gets a couple receptions per game. The passing game utilizes a lot of bubble screens but also can go deep with really any of the receivers on the field. James Hardy gets most of the national attention, but the other receivers are pretty good players as well. Often, Indiana will use the short passing game to open up the run or soften a secondary for a deep shot down field.

3. What are the strengths/weaknesses of the IU defense?
Romey: Defensively, IU's biggest strength is its pass rush. The Hoosiers' D-line spent a good portion of the season ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation in sacks per game. Sophomore defensive end Greg Middleton is currently the nation's leader in the category. Jammie Kirlew lines up on the opposite side, and he's had a decent sophomore season as well. The coaching staff likes to rotate a lot of linemen in and out to keep the unit fresh, and that's really been I think a big key to the D-line's success.

Indiana is still young and fairly inexperienced at linebacker and safety. The linebackers are undersized, but they're quick and more of a finesse group. This has helped IU in defending against pass-heavy teams, but the defense has had a lot of trouble with opponents who like to stack the line of scrimmage and run the ball up the middle. Michigan State exploited Indiana in this area for a blowout win in the beginning of the conference season. At safety, Indiana starts two sophomores in Austin Thomas and Nick Polk. Both are in their first years as starters. Polk is a former wide receiver who converted to DB during spring ball.

4. Looking at the 2007 season, the year seemed very up and down in terms of wins and losses over the course of the slate. What do you think that could be most attributed to? And as a bonus, what happened at Northwestern?
Romey: The ups and downs during the season is really a result of scheduling I think. At the start of the year, Indiana had what seemed to be eight or nine beatable opponents - Indiana State, Western Michigan, Akron, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ball State, Illinois and maybe Iowa or Purdue. They played six of those teams for the first six games of the schedule, leaving Northwestern and Ball State as the only beatable opponents to close out the schedule. Of course, a couple of those teams ended up exceeding expectations - Illinois being the biggest outlier. But I think you still get the point I am trying to make.

I also think there might have been a little bit of a psychological aspect in getting a sixth win. The team had to get over a mental hump in becoming bowl eligible because that was a step the program hadn't taken in 13 years.

Against Northwestern, the defense couldn't stop the Wildcats' spread attack. There was also a sequence in the first half where a backup quarterback came into the game for one play to relieve Kellen Lewis, who was shaken up after taking a big hit. The play call was for the backup to attempt a pass. He ended up throwing an interception that was ran back for a touchdown. Those seven points were ultimately the difference in a tight game. The play call was pretty controversial among the fan base. The sentiment was that a backup quarterback shouldn't have come into a game cold and attempted a pass. Late in the game, Lewis also fumbled the ball when attempting a pass. That sequence had some controversy surround it as well because it looked as though the proper call should have been intentional grounding. IU was in field goal range to tie at that point in the game, but the turnover squandered the comeback.

5. Just how are the basketball-crazy IU fans taking this football season and what is the buzz like up for about the Insight Bowl?
Romey: It seems like the fan base has really embraced the whole thing. It is, after all, uncharted territory for the Indiana faithful. It's a unique experience for the program and its fans because it has been 14 years since IU has made it to the post season. Terry Hoeppner also renewed the excitement surrounding the football team when he became head coach three years ago. That excitement I think hit its apex when IU beat Purdue. That's a wave the fan base still seems to be riding, and I expect that sentiment to carry over to the bowl game.

I also think the students will make a strong showing in Tempe. At Indiana, the students have started filling out the student section during the games, and there are a lot of IU football banners hanging on apartments and fraternity houses around campus. You can also always count on the students to jump on any opportunity to party and have a good time. Tempe seems to present that.

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