Indiana has to beat Iowa on Sunday. Absolutely has to. It cannot afford to allow this struggling stretch of four losses in five games continue. There are too many tough games remaining, including next week’s brutal road run of Michigan and Purdue, to have any slip ups.
The Hoosiers are 16-5 and set to drop even further in the polls. Just a couple of weeks ago they were No. 7 in the country. Now they’re No. 16 and will slide a little more because of Thursday’s defeat at No. 25 Wisconsin.
IU’s recent losing doesn’t mean it’s stunk up Assembly Hall and the rest of the Big Ten. It got hammered at Ohio State, but every visiting team gets that experience, even Duke.
The home loss to Minnesota hurt, although the Gophers are playing much, much better. The blown game at Nebraska was a big blow. Losing a 13-point second half lead, including an 11-point advantage in the final six minutes against a team that reminds no one of, say, Kentucky, is a big problem.
Losing at Wisconsin is no disgrace, although the Badgers have been vulnerable at the Kohl Center with three losses there already. Still, IU trailed just 51-50 in the final two minutes, and was just a couple of tough-minded plays away from a victory at a place it hasn’t won at since 1998.
It didn’t happen, and you bet the Hoosiers were ticked.
“We did a lot of really good things,” coach Tom Crean said. “They got a couple of really big rebounds at the end of the game at crucial times. We put ourselves in position to win, we just didn’t finish it off.”
And yet, IU is playing better. Its overall defense has picked up, its shooting has been solid. Even in the defeats, you can see the potential is there. Once the team’s poise and maturity matches the talent –- and it’s close – more wins will come, even on the road.
The Hoosiers just have to be mentally tough to do what needs to be done at crunch time.
That’s the million-dollar question.
Iowa is a dangerous team. You don’t win at Wisconsin, as the Hawkeyes did this season; you don’t beat Michigan, as they’ve also done, without having impressive weapons.
Iowa’s problem, which is true for so many teams, is that it isn’t consistent. It has defensive lapses, which is the main reason it is 11-10, 3-5 in the Big Ten.
It’s a winnable game, a must-win game. Let’s see if the Hoosiers are up to the task.
It’s about recruiting. Jon Fabris understands that. It’s why, from the moment he arrived at IU as the new defensive ends coach, his total focus was on helping the program land the best players possible. He didn’t have time to watch any film of the Hoosiers’ current defensive ends he’ll be coaching in the spring.
“I got into my office (on a Friday morning) and there was nothing on my desk. Now, I can’t see my desk. All I’ve been doing is recruiting. I’ve met with my players, and know some things about them, but I haven’t had a chance to really look at them.”
With the start of the signing period set for this Monday, what does Fabris want in a tight end?
“Defensive ends are just part of the defense. If you can’t stop the run, you’re not going to win, and when you stop the run, if you can’t pressure the quarterback, you’re probably not going to have a real good chance for success, either. That’s one reason why 16 of the top 32 players taken in the NFL Draft are defensive linemen.
“Good ones are hard to find, and they’re difference makers. They come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve had defensive ends that were 6-5 and guys who were 6-foot. Some of them started as tailbacks or linebackers. Most of them had never played the position before.
The only truly great player I ever coached in my life (Georgia All-America David Pollack) was recruited to be a fullback. He never played defensive end until the spring of his college freshman year, and he turned out to be a great player.
“You’ve got to have some physical ability, obviously, but you’re looking for intangible qualities that a lot of kids just don’t possess.”
Fabris is a competitive guy. He thrives on challenges and, as the new defensive ends coach for Indiana, he’ll get plenty of challenges.
He was hired to help boost a defense that was not exactly a national power. He’s certainly got the background to do it. He’s coached for 29 years and been involved in 12 bowls, including five BCS events. He’s worked at Georgia Tech, Washington State, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Kansas State, South Carolina and the Cleveland Browns. He also was at Georgia for nine years. For the 2011 season he was at Northwest Mississippi Community College.
“The thing that attracts me to Indiana is the competitive stage of this league – the personalities and the people,” he said. “I did not know Kevin Wilson real well, but a lot of people who had coached with him had coached with me, and they told me about him. They said he was a very competitive guy and a very intelligent guy. Those are attractive traits to have your boss be that way.”
Attractive traits are great, but winning is the bottom-line reality. Wilson’s 1-11 IU debut was not want anybody wanted. A turnaround is crucial and it starts with recruiting better players and then coaching them to their potential.
We’ll see what happens, starting Wednesday.