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Thursday Night Recap: We Waited All Summer For This?

Tim Cary

The stage was set.

A Thursday night showcase.

Memorial Stadium had its facelift.

Indiana had the school's biggest home opener crowd in a dozen years.

The world was watching on the Big Ten Network.

And the result?


Well, it could have been prettier.

The Hoosiers survived (that's about the only word that really fits) against FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky, escaping with a 19-13 win in a game that honestly couldn't have been any closer.

EKU wouldn't go away after a poor start, and ended up with a potential game-winning Hail Mary pass getting knocked away as time expired.  The Colonels fought valiantly, but it wasn't enough to get the road win.
Ball State v Indiana

So what did we learn about the Hoosiers in their home opener?

1.  The pistol misfired.
  During the offseason, fans heard over and over about the new pistol offense Coach Bill Lynch was installing in Bloomington, and how it should help the Hoosiers' running game immensely.

Well, we're waiting.

Indiana averaged a disappointing 2.4 yards per carry Thursday night, getting outrushed by the visitors 100 yards to 73.  Even that number is a bit deceiving, because EKU lost a whopping 55 yards due to sacks. Take away the quarterback's negative plays, and the Hoosiers basically got doubled up on the ground...

...which brings up a gloomy thought for IU fans.  If your rushing offense is non-existent against the lone FCS opponent on the schedule, how do you expect to gain yardage against the Ohio States and Penn States of the world?

2.  Questions at quarterback.  I've said all along it's hard to expect much from a team that finished 3-9 a year ago and then dismissed arguably its most talented player in Kellen Lewis.  Signal-caller and heir apparent Ben Chappell wasn't awful last night, but his Jekyll-and-Hyde performance was one of the major reasons the Colonels were in this game until the final gun went off.

The good news: Chappell hit on 75% of his throws, posted a career-high 326 yards through the air, and showed a knack for making plays by completing passes off his back foot under duress.

The bad news: Chappell misfired on quite a few wide-open receivers and threw two horrible interceptions, showing his knack for making poor decisions by trying to complete passes off his back foot under duress. 

Call it the gunslinger mentality a certain thrice-retired quarterback trademarked in Green Bay. 

When it works, a potential sack instead becomes a SportsCenter highlight.  When it doesn't...well...Chappell single-handedly killed two drives by trying to complete throws he couldn't step into.

3. Rush the pass rush, please.  Indiana got consistent pressure with its front four all night, totaling four sacks and countless hurries.  However, at the same time the defensive line was sparkling, the secondary was getting exposed.  EKU revealed the key to moving the ball against the Hoosiers' defense last night: get the pass off quickly.

When the Colonels threw quick-hitting slants, they got huge gains (see the 61-yard touchdown from Cody Watts to Garnett Phelps in the first quarter).  On the other hand, when Eastern Kentucky looked for a slower-developing pass play, the quarterback found himself looking up at the Bloomington sky with a D-lineman on top of him more often than not. 

The Hoosiers need to shore up their defensive backfield in a hurry, or Western Michigan's Tim Hiller will connect on 30 straight 3-step drops to light up the Indiana corners next weekend.

4.  Good things come in pairs.  There's been a lot of well-deserved hype about the Hoosiers' pair of defensive ends (and expect Kirlew and Middleton to justify those accolades and more before the season ends), but it was a different Indiana duo--the wide receivers--that made the most impact last night.   

Sophomores Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher combined for 14 catches and 223 yards, over half of the Hoosiers' total offensive output.  The two Indiana natives should provide plenty of support for Chappell this season if the run game sputters. 
Cental Michigan v Indiana
As any fan knows, the sum of two solid wideouts is greater than the individual parts, since it prevents defensive coordinators from double-teaming a single star on the outside.  (Right, Eric Decker? I'm already on record saying I'd double-team the Gophers' playmaker on every snap...)  If Doss and Belcher continue to shine this fall, better things are in store for IU's offense.

5. Let's give some credit to the coach.  It was obvious last night that Bill Lynch was trying hard to establish the running game his program has worked so hard on during the offseason.  It was also obvious that the running game was going absolutely nowhere. 
Ball State v Indiana
Give Lynch credit for basically abandoning the run game in the fourth quarter; many play-callers are so wrapped up in "their" game plan that they sacrifice the outcome on the altar of their over-inflated ego.

It takes a wiser man to postpone the improvement in rushing statistics and just do whatever is needed to win, which for the Hoosiers meant throwing on seven straight plays (completing five) in the pivotal fourth quarter.  If IU had relied solely on its ineffective run game to drain the clock, it might very well have been the visitors celebrating today instead.

And now it's time for some superlatives...

Best play:
  In the "thank goodness for my DVR" category, we have Damarlo Belcher's first-quarter tiptoe catch on the sideline.  I have no idea how he got a foot down in-bounds, but Belcher gets the "play of the day" award.  To give a better idea how inconsistent the Hoosiers' night was, Indiana was whistled for a false start immediately BEFORE and immediately AFTER Belcher's highlight grab.

Honorable mention goes to Eastern Kentucky's Garnett Phelps, who stole a sideline bomb from IU cornerback Richard Council by ripping the ball away for a 38-yard reception.  Talk about "going up to get it".

Newcomer award:   Special recognition to Indiana senior cornerback Ray Fisher, who's making the switch to defense after three impressive years as a wide receiver (he's one of only 14 players in school history with 100 catches and 1,000 yards).  Fisher made five tackles in his defensive debut and forced the game's most critical turnover, a fourth-quarter EKU fumble near the Hoosiers' goal line.  Welcome to defense, Ray.

Maybe coaching is easier than I thought.  Still trying to figure out why Eastern Kentucky coach Derek Hood was keeping a pair of timeouts in his back pocket as the Hoosiers ran almost all of the last seven minutes off the clock.  Thanks to Hood's questionable time management, the Colonels didn't get the football back for a potential game-winning score until only 26 seconds remained...but hey, at least they had two timeouts!

In the press conference afterwards, Hood said, "Probably the biggest mistake of the game was towards the end.  I thought we should have used a timeout to give our offense a little more time...we would have been in a lot better position to win it."

Um, ya think?

Quote of the night:
  I had the privilege of watching Thursday's opener with a good friend who happens to be a Bloomington native and Indiana fan.  After one particularly bad turnover, the look on his face told it all.  "Football season used to be so much easier to take when we knew we were going to dominate in basketball," he muttered.

Around the country:  As you probably know, the Big Ten wasn't the only league getting football season kicked off last night.  When I finally flipped the television off, I was convinced of three things.

1.  Purdue now has a better chance to beat Oregon next week.  As a Boilermakers fan, watching LeGarrette Blount go all "Ron Artest" on Boise State means the Ducks should be without a key offensive weapon when Purdue heads west next weekend.

2.  Let's give up on the pre-game handshakes, alright?  Looks to me like if we want to promote sportsmanship in college football, maybe we should spend a little bit less time on pregame ceremony and ritual and a little bit more time investing in security officers.  Pre-game handshake, post-game doesn't quite add up.

3.  Rich Rodriguez was right about something.  You probably forgot by now, what with all the other juicy storylines coming out of Ann Arbor, but Rodriguez told reporters a few weeks ago that college football teams should be allowed to have a preseason game to help work out the kinks before the competition begins for real.

Let's look at last night's action, shall we?

Boise State 19, Oregon 8.

Indiana 19, Eastern Kentucky 13.

And oh yes, the absolute epitome of ugliness... South Carolina 7, North Carolina State 3.

Can we still get that preseason game?






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