Sunday, August 29, 2010

Conference Season: Win Early and Hang On Late

Week 4 may be the biggest game of the year. Michigan travels to Bloomington after BARELY escaping with a controversial win in Ann Arbor last year. The Wolverines have another year running the spread offense under their belt and both potential starting quarterbacks are no longer freshmen. If the Hoosiers are serious bowl contenders, this will be the game where fans will see it.

Notice the theme I had been developing through the first three games. Just as in past year, the Hoosiers are going to rely on their offense to win games. The defense is going to be a huge liability nearly all of its great players like Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew have moved on.

The Hoosiers will have to attempt to run up the score on every opponent, not because they are better, but because they will need to build leads because the defense will not be able to hold opponents in the fourth quarter. If the Hoosiers lead by a field goal with 2 minutes to go in the game, I'll bet against the IU defense most of the time.

Against Michigan, the Hoosiers will come out with a chip on their shoulder. They will score early and an unforced turnover will allow the Hoosiers to take a 21-7 lead at halftime. The Wolverines will get back in the game in the second half, but IU will outscore them 38-28, for their first win over Michigan since 1987.

The party will come to an end the following week when the Hoosiers travel to No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes play on a different level. They should have the complete package. After the win over Michigan, Coach Jim Tressel will not let his team underestimate the Hoosiers. The reality check is convincing and immediate. IU loses 42-24.

The 4-1 Hoosiers return for homecoming to play Arkansas State -- the final non-conference game of the year. This should be the perfect way for the Hoosiers to forget about the pounding in Columbus. Arkansas State was rated near the bottom of the FBS by and is coming off a 4-8 season. Again, if the offense is healthy, the Hoosiers should be able to overcome any defensive problems with points. IU wins 38-21.

At 5-1, the Hoosiers will travel to Illinois and take on another team trying to claw back into the realm of football relevance. This will be the one road game that would be a disappointment to lose. If they cannot outlast Illinois, their bowl chances likely go away with it. I think IU pulls it out with a late touchdown: 28-24.

Now 6-1, the Hoosiers return home again to face Northwestern, the source of a ton of misery last season. The Wildcats stole the game in 2009, holding IU on fourth and goal from the 2 yard line and eventually won the game with a last-second field goal. There is no question the Hoosiers can win this game, but as a friend of mine (a Penn St. alum) once said "You can never underestimate Northwestern."

The tone of this game will be much different if the Hoosiers lose to Illinois. A loss the previous week and the Hoosiers likely will not win this game. But I think the confidence generated by a road win could carry the Hoosiers to win number 7. This game is close, but IU gets the late stop and kicks the winning field goal with less than a minute to go. Final score: 38-35.

Now 7-1, the Hoosiers begin to enter some national radar screens. They may be getting votes in the polls at this point. But now the schedule becomes an impossible gauntlet, beginning with No. 9 Iowa. Like Ohio State, the Hawkeyes are looking to contend for a Rose Bowl berth. They will not take the Hoosiers lightly. IU hangs around, but will only tease fans of a huge upset. Hoosiers lose 31-24.

No. 12 Wisconsin awaits the following week, which will fully expose the weaknesses of the Hoosier defense. The Badgers like to run the ball and with the high-octane Hoosier offense waiting to explode, Wisconsin will run it even more. The Hoosiers won't get the ball long enough to stay in the game at Madison, losing 17-3.

At 7-3, the doubters are back and the national media is gone, just in time for IU to kind-of welcome Penn State. It is a home game, but will be played in Washington D.C. While I will be excited to attend, the Hoosiers will not be playing like they are at home. This game will be dominated by Penn State fans and they will have plenty to cheer about. IU loses for the third straight week, 31-21.

Now 7-4, the Hoosiers attempt to reclaim the Old Oaken Bucket at Purdue. The Boilers are rebuilding and also improving, but the good news is IU should not have to win this game to gain the bowl bid. IU Coach Bill Lynch knows an 8 win season would impress just about everyone in Bloomington, but I don't see it happening. Flip your coin for this rivalry game ... it's tails. Hoosiers lose, 28-24.

The Hoosiers will finish the year 7-5 and likely head to the Texas Bowl or return to the Insight Bowl. Lynch will lose the bowl game, but it is a good season, one that earns him a contract extension.


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