Indiana Hoosiers Open Kevin Wilson Era with Loss

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I’m not quite sure that was the way the Indiana University football team wanted to begin its new era.

Playing their first game of the 2011 season and under new coach Kevin Wilson, the Hoosiers looked pretty much like, well, the Hoosiers — the IU teams of the last three seasons under Bill Lynch and the IU teams throughout the program’s history — in a 27-20 loss to in-state foe Ball State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Granted, it’s still early, and let’s be honest: we’re kidding ourselves if we couldn’t see this coming from IU. Even so, it’s clear this team is still a work in progress.

Let’s dive right in.

When IU Athletics Director Fred Glass hired Wilson to replaced the fired Lynch last December, it became apparent to Hoosier Nation that its new football coach would instill some toughness and physicality that had been lacking under the Lynch regime (Lynch rarely conducted practices in full pads).

That toughness and physicality showed in the offense Saturday — the Hoosiers ran for 103 net yards, attained six first downs on the ground and set the tone on the game-opening drive with a combined 51 rushing yards and a score between running backs Matt Perez and Stephen Houston — but it hardly was evident on the defensive side.

After going three-and-out on its opening drive, Ball State did pretty much anything it wanted to IU’s defense. The Cardinals amassed 210 rushing yards on 46 carries. That left things wide open for quarterback Keith Wenning, who went 23-of-29 for 173 yards and two touchdowns. As a unit, Ball State converted 10-of-14 third-down attempts.

The Cardinals did so with seemingly no challenge from IU. Whenever running back Barrington Scott got the ball, he ate up yards. Whenever Wenning looked to pass, he found a receiver all by himself.

It’s surprising, too, because I thought the defense would be the stronger of the Hoosiers’ two main units coming into 2011. The squad came on late in 2010, and it returned plenty of key starters, namely defensive linemen Adam Replogle, Larry Black and Darius Johnson, linebacker Jeff Thomas and defensive back Greg Heban. All were major contributors down the stretch last season.

The offense, the unit I had plenty of questions about before the opener, looked OK in several drives but shaky in others. The offensive line is definitely a potential problem area. It really has been since losing stalwart left tackle Rodger Saffold after 2009, and it didn’t help matters losing right tackle James Brewer after last season. But this front line left quarterback Edward Wright-Baker scrambling for dear life against a ferocious Cardinals pass rush.

Speaking of Wright-Baker, the sophomore did a decent job in a game situation after emerging from the three-way starting quarterback battle with fellow sophomore Dusty Kiel and true freshman Tre Roberson. Wright-Baker finished 20-of-32 for 272 yards and a touchdown, which was a beautiful 65-yard strike to senior wideout Damarlo Belcher. He struggled at times when he was under duress, but I’d venture as to say the starting job is likely his.

I understand there was plenty of excitement about the beginning of Wilson’s tenure as IU coach; the first-year head man brought pedigree with him that included directing the highest-scoring offense in FBS history and developing a Heisman quarterback while serving as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. Come to think of it, he already had developed some cred in Bloomington in recruiting; he nabbed the top-rated pro-style quarterback prospect for 2012 in Gunner Kiel, luring the Columbus, Ind. native away from the likes of Alabama.

But everyone needs to remember that there’s still a lot of work to be done on this team. Regardless of who was going to be coach, the Hoosiers still were going to lose Ben Chappell to graduation and receiver Tandon Doss to the NFL Draft. Key playmakers like running back Darius Willis and receiver Duwyce Wilson were unavailable with injuries. The offensive line. The quarterback competition. The struggling defense. The list is longer than it would seem.

The Kevin Wilson era didn’t begin as well as IU might have liked, but it’s just the beginning.

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