So what is Indiana up against when it faces Ball State Saturday?
It’s hard to know given it has a new coach in Pete Lembo, who has thrived at Lehigh and Elon. If a guy can go 79-36 at those places, he ought to be able to build a winner at Ball State, which just a few years ago under Brady Hoke was nationally ranked.
The problem is the Cardinals are just 6-18 in the last two years, which is why Stan Parrish is no longer running the program. Lembo said the key was building trust with the players while installing a new system and approach. That approach includes a more hands-on emphasis when it comes to academics and academic support. It also involves a reorganization of the strength and conditioning program.
Anyway, figure Ball State will come out throwing. Why? Because that’s what Lembo-coached teams are known for. Last year Elon had the nation’s second-ranked passing attack.
Ball State has a pair of veteran quarterbacks in sophomore Keith Wenning and junior Kelly Page. Wenning won the starting job. That’s in contrast to IU, which still has not named a starter. All we know is that Edward Wright-Baker and Dusty Kiel will definitely play, and Trey Roberson might.
By all accounts the Hoosiers’ secondary is much improved, which it absolutely has to be if they are to have a chance at a winning season. This is an early test to see where they stand. If Ball State torches them through the air, be very afraid. If IU’s defense stuffs the Cardinals into irrelevance, a turnaround is closer than experts think. And if it's somewhere in the middle, well, a first game can only tell you so much.
Is junior tailback Darius Willis the unluckiest guy in college football or just the most fragile? It’s hard to know. What we do know is that he won’t play Saturday against Ball State because he is, once again, hurt.
Yes, there is also the matter of Willis’ one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. That came after Willis was given a six-month protective order following an alleged domestic assault incident against a female student last winter. Willis was not charged with a crime.
The suspension is irrelevant right now because Willis is hurt. Check that. This game might count as the suspended game, or it might not. Coach Kevin Wilson isn’t sure, but is leaning toward saying that it doesn't count, which means Willis will miss at least one more game.
Anway, as the weeks passed with Willis being too hurt to practice, the initial impression was that he was still recovering from last season’s knee surgery, but Wilson said the injuries go way beyond that and involve hamstring, ankles and back.
Anyway, Willis was hurt as a redshirt freshman, but still managed to rush for 607 yards and six touchdowns. Last year he only played four games, totaling 278 yards and four TDs, before hurting his knee.
Then he missed all of spring practice, and didn’t do much during preseason camp.
Another veteran running back, Nick Turner also is banged up (concussion) and out for the Ball State game.
In the meantime, redshirt freshman Matt Perez, freshman D’Angelo Roberts and junior college transfer Stephen Houston have moved to the forefront. They might stay there even if Willis gets healthy.
Willis was recruited with the hopes of being the next Anthony Thompson, or at least a close copy. He is 6-foot and 220 pounds and, if you remember the Michigan game from 2009, fast enough to run away from defensive backs.
But you could be the second coming of Jim Brown and if you can’t stay healthy, who cares?
If Wilson is to turn the program around, he needs players he can count on, athletically, academically and socially. For one game at least, that means Perez, Roberts and Houston.