Kickoff: Indiana at Michigan, 3:30 p.m. Saturday
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Will Indiana football ever get it right?
Maybe it's best not to answer that.
The Hoosiers arrived at Michigan State on Saturday with a chance and left with a 42-28 reality check. Their defense remains a disaster. Their battered offensive line struggles to hold up -- although, to be fair, most lines do against the Spartans' powerhouse group. Their ability to overcome adversity is still a work in progress.
So they are 3-3 overall, 1-1 in the Big Ten. They head to No. 18 Michigan on Saturday, a place they haven't won at since Lyndon Johnson was president -- 1967 to be precise.
Oh, Michigan (5-1, 1-1) lost in four overtimes at Penn State on Saturday. Figure the Wolverines will be highly motivated to make somebody pay,
The Hoosiers are first in line.
But before that Ann Arbor encounter occurs, IU has a few issues to resolve and momentum to once again regain. It continues its win-one, lose-one season trend.
How frustrating is this?
“I wouldn't say it's frustrating,” receiver Shane Wynn said. “We've got to keep working hard at it. We've got to keep finishing games.”
One explanation is as simple as it is disappointing -- Indiana just isn't good enough to beat quality opponents, certainly not when it's not at full strength (did we mention the battered offensive line?). It's not scheme or approach or motivation as much as Michigan State has better players. So do Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State, which also loom on the schedule.
Recruiting can change that. So can continued player development.
Coach Kevin Wilson wants no part of excuse making. Hard work and belief remain the cornerstones of his turn-around efforts.
“We've been pretty good throughout the year,” he said. “There's always going to be a glitch or two along the way. You've got to be strong enough and mature enough to overcome it. You've got to be deep to overcome it.”
Sure, the Hoosiers are better. They scored 28 points against a defense that gives up just over 13. In their first two running plays they had more rushing yards (66) than Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) gives up in a game (51.2). They showed flashes of what they could do if they ever get it all together against a top-25-caliber team.
For the record, Penn State does not fit that description.
As usual, it's the defense. In its last two trips to Spartan Stadium IU has given up 97 points. Michigan State had the Big Ten's second-worst offense and moved the ball like Oregon. In one stretch, it converted 9 of 11 third downs. It scored on five straight possessions spanning the first and second half. In controlled the clock, kept the Hoosier offense off the field and, in short, provided a blueprint for future opponents.
"We felt like we had to control the tempo of the game and had to definitely win the field position battle and had to take the air out of the ball some,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said, “which I felt like we did.”
In previous games, IU had communication issues and guys being out of position. On Saturday, it centered on bad tackling. Defenders were there, but couldn't make plays.
Yes, we've heard this before.
“We had guys where they needed to be," safety Greg Heban said. "We just didn't get the tackles. Too many missed tackles. That's something we can't go back to.”
That this game would come down to Indiana's defense was no surprise. The Hoosiers had the Big Ten's best offense. Michigan State had the best defense. The Spartans seemed offensively vulnerable, a perfect test for a Cream 'n Crimson defense that had shown improvement against Penn State.
As it turned out, IU didn't pass.
“Michigan State has a great defense,” Heban said. “We knew the offense would have a challenge with them the whole game. It was going to come down to our defense stopping their offense. Their defense is definitely their strongest point, but their offense is improved. We knew we had a chance to stop them and we didn't succeed.”
Michigan State's bust-you-up defense forced Wilson to stay with an uptempo approach when it seemed a slower attack might help the defense. The reason – the faster IU went, the less likely the Spartans would be able to adjust and change personnel.
“(The Spartans) have a lot of pride in their defense, the way they attack and play,” Wilson said. “There were some times where we actually did some things against them that sometimes are maybe a little bit quicker than we want. But you're doing that so they can't get multiple in their looks.
“They can be very complex in their ability to disguise where they're coming from -- show you a blitz one way, come the other way -- so that makes sense sometimes to go fast enough to help ourselves, but sometimes it's fast enough to not be clean for your quarterbacks.
“It was competitive and tough, and that's what happens when you play against a pretty good defense. (Michigan State) doesn't give up points. You've got to beat them as a team. We needed a pick six. We needed a blocked punt or a punt return, and we didn't get it. We needed a couple defense stops, and we didn't get them.”
What they got was a another lopsided loss in another winnable game.
That's getting old.