Oct. 29, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
It would have been no surprise to find the 'Cats on life support after they suffered late -- and tough -- losses to Purdue and Michigan State. Those kinds of defeats, after all, have a tendency to create crises of confidence. But as they prepared for their Saturday visit to Indiana, they were anything but that. They, in fact, exuded confidence after viewing the tape of their performance against the undefeated Spartans. Did that surprise Pat Fitzgerald?
"I think this group is really tight. I think they're really close and have good leadership from within," the 'Cat coach responded. "I think when you have that, and you see how we play when we play like we're capable of, I think that brings confidence not only individually, but collectively. There's a lot of guys in a foul mood. You can look around and you can see the way we've been practicing. In the last (period) today we were ready to get in a scuffle. Guys are just working hard to get better and that's been the hallmark of our program. There's no magic pill. We've just got to coach them better and the guys got to make plays and execute the things we're asking them to do. It's a full program deal."
The 'Cats entered the fourth quarter with leads in each of those losses and, afterward, both Fitzgerald and his players talked of needing to play the full 60 minutes. That led us to wonder why that achievement has proven so difficult for this group. "You know," said Fitzgerald, "in five years, I don't think we've played a 60 minute game. But I think we've been able to overcome some things and this year, for five weeks, we were able to overcome them because we made some plays when it mattered. I think the last couple of weeks we've been in position, but we haven't made those plays and that's something we're going to keep working on. I think it's hard to say you're going to play a perfect 60 minutes of football. But when it matters the most -- and that's really the fourth quarter -- three games ago (against Minnesota), we made the plays. For a lot of the games that I've been a head coach, we've made the plays. We've just got to continue to be confident and, when a play presents itself, to make it."
The 'Cats have proven themselves fully capable of making plays on the road, where they have a five-game winning streak (in the regular season) that stretches back to their victory over Iowa last November. Not only that. They also have a 10-3 road record since the start of 2008, a winning percentage (.769) that's eighth-best among FBS schools. Does that give them confidence heading down to Bloomington? "I think so," says quarterback Dan Persa
. "We're really comfortable on the road. We have an us-against-the-world mentality. I think we're as close a team as we've had since I've been here. I have all the confidence in the world in every guy that goes on the trip, and I think they'd say the same thing."
In 2002, the 'Cats defeated the Hoosiers by four. In 2003, the 'Cats defeated the Hoosiers in overtime by six. In 2004, the 'Cats defeated the Hoosiers in double overtime by seven. In 2007, the 'Cats defeated the Hoosiers by three. In 2008, the Hoosiers defeated the 'Cats by two. In 2009, the 'Cats defeated the Hoosiers by one. That means a mere 23 points have separated these teams in their last half dozen meetings and so it is no wonder that Fitzgerald says: "If past history is any indication of where this one is going to go, we better pump it up and get ready for a wild ride."
Another reason to expect just that kind of ride is the match-up of Persa and Hoosier quarterback Ben Chappell and the attacks they lead. We'll take our cue from boxing here and tell this story as a Tale of the Tape: The Hoosiers pass offense averages a Big Ten best 313.6 ypg; right behind them in second are the 'Cats, who average 272.7. Chappell averages a Big Ten best 305.3 passing yards per game; right behind him in second is Persa, who is averaging 264.3. Persa averages 313 yards of total offense per game, second best in the Big Ten; right behind him in third is Chappell, who averages 304.1. Hoosiers' Damario Belcher (6.71) and Tandon Doss (6.00) lead the Big Ten in receptions-per-game; right behind them in third is 'Cat Jeremy Ebert (5.29). But Ebert averages a Big Ten best 82.9 receiving yards per game; right behind him, though, are Belcher in second (81.3) and Doss in third (78.2).
"He puts the ball where it needs to be when it needs to be there," Fitzgerald will say of Chappell, a fifth-year senior. "He's tough. He sat in there and took a lot of hits against Illinois (last Saturday) and still delivered the ball pretty well. So, he's a tough guy, a really, really talented guy. . .(and) they've got receivers at every position who can score when they touch the ball. It's going to be a big challenge for our defense."
For the record, the Hoosiers do not run the Spread. They run the Pistol and, read their game notes, "In the Hoosier Pistol offense the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center and the running back lines up three-to-four yards behind the quarterback. The running back receives the ball deeper in the backfield enabling him to run 'downhill' and allowing the offense to use more play-action pass."
"It's a little bit different (from the Spread) because you're a little more downhill," echoes Fitzgerald. "The quarterback's back is turned to the line of scrimmage (after he receives the snap), so at times the ball's a little more hidden. They've done some nice things conceptually where they fake a fly sweep and throw a bubble, things of that nature. So it'll be a little bit unique from what we've seen."
And finally, on a lighter note: Indiana could have picked up its nickname from Samuel Hoosier, a contractor on the Louisville & Portland Canal in 1925. He found that the best diggers he hired came from the Indiana side of the Ohio River and so filled his crews with them. "Hoosier men" they came to be called.
Or: Indiana could have picked up its nickname from those nervous pioneers who, when hearing a stranger approach, shouted out from behind locked doors, "Who's there?"
Or, and this one gets your humble scribbler's vote: Indiana could have picked up its nickname from the oft-whimsical author James Whitcomb Riley, who grew up in the state and once wrote about the vicious fights that often broke out among its pioneers. These fights, he noted, would often end with someone losing an ear and so, the next morning, patrons were not at all unsettled when they walked into a bar and spotted one on the floor. They simply shrugged, pointed down and wondered, "Whose ear?"
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