Indiana co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler cares. Never forget that. He’s a passionate coach who directs with emotion. He yells, jokes, jumps and drives.
He also looks in the mirror.
Ekeler sees the Ball State game ending, when the Cardinals drove for the winning field goal in the last 40 seconds, and takes responsibility.
“Football is a crazy game. It teaches you a lot of lessons. You pour everything you have into it. Last week we put everything we had into it and came up short. I’ll take 99 percent of the blame. I did a bad job at the end. It burns in you as a coach. It should. You invest so much. You’ve got to refocus.”
In an ideal world, IU would have had another game the next week to get over the defeat. Instead, the bye week provided extra time for the loss to linger.
“It would have been great to have been able to have another game, but that’s not the way the schedule played out,” he said. “We tried to use the time wisely.”
It’s all about accountability, you see. The coaches job is to put guys in position to make plays. It’s about getting guys to play to their ability, and then just a little bit more. It’s also about players doing their jobs, which is as much mental as physical.
IU’s often bend-and-break defense strives for change. It’s been striving for a generation, and giving up 41 points to Ball State indicates a lot more work is needed.
Ekeler sees signs the work is paying off.
“It’s about meshing as a group, bringing it all together,” he says. “I see a different focus and level of commitment and understanding. These guys are a lot of fun to coach.
“I like the resiliency we have, the leadership we have. We didn’t get the result we wanted (against Ball State), but it’s not due to a lack of fighting. That’s the difference I’ve noticed.
“Our guys enjoying going to practice. They enjoy getting better each day. That’s a good mixture.”
On Saturday IU opens Big Ten play against Northwestern. The Wildcats are 4-0 and features a run-heavy offense capable of producing big numbers. They scored 42 points against Syracuse and 38 against South Dakota State.
“They get the momentum and get rolling and you’ve got to put the brakes on them,” Ekeler says. “You’ve got to get them off schedule.
“We’ve got to handle their run game. That’s what it boils down to. Try to make teams one dimensional.”
Last year Indiana never stopped Northwestern, losing 59-38.
“They did a fantastic job schematically,” Ekeler says. “We’ve changed. They’ve changed. You can be in better defenses and make better calls, but it all boils down to you’ve got to get off blocks and you’ve got to make plays.”
This year’s Northwestern squad features a two-quarterback approach in Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Colter is a run-pass threat. Siemian is more of a passer.
“They both can throw,” Ekeler says. “One of them (Colter) is more athletic as far as mobility. When the pass isn’t there, he can tuck it and run. He makes a lot of plays with his feet. The other one (Siemian) has a stronger arm. He’s more of a drop-back quarterback. They’ve brought him into games when they’ve been down. He’s very good. They complement each other very well.”
The Wildcats also have an explosive tailback in Mark Venric. He’s only 5-8 and 180 pounds, but very fast. He’s rushed for 399 yards (averaging 5.5 yards a carry) and four touchdowns. He’s also caught 11 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s one of the fastest guys we’ll see all year,” Ekeler says. “He has sprinter’s speed. You have to know where he’s at all the time.
“Overall they’re very physical and very balanced. They make you be extremely balanced.”