BLOOMINGTON — Maybe it’s time for Indiana coach Bill Lynch to go all Ozzy Osbourne and bite the head off a bat for his pre-game pep talk. Hey, when you’ve got a team admitting to dwindling intensity, when it’s coming off its least inspiring performance of the season, something has to change.
Osbourne, for those in the dark, is the Black Sabbath rock star who once bit a bat during a concert. His reasons, much like his speech, were unclear, but it got the crowd going.
Now here’s Lynch with a 3-3 team fading faster than the Tennessee Titans’ Super Bowl hopes. The Hoosiers host under-achieving Illinois (1-4) Saturday night for homecoming, and postseason hopes ride on a victory.
IU’s three-game losing streak reached a new low with Saturday’s 47-7 debacle at Virginia. That reflected a lack of fire that has escalated in recent weeks.
“I wouldn’t say it was a lack of enthusiasm, but definitely the intensity level has been declining lately, for whatever reason,” senior linebacker Matt Mayberry said.
That changed Monday, he added.
“I don’t think we’ve started off with a Monday practice this whole year as fired up and as intense as it was.”
The key is getting that fire to show up Saturday night.
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Illinois was supposed to be back in bowl-contending form this season, but it hasn’t performed anywhere close to that level. It got hammered by Missouri (37-9), Ohio State (30-0) and Penn State (35-17). It lost to Michigan State, 24-14. Its only victory came against Illinois State, 45-17.
Many of those struggles are due to a schedule rated as the Big Ten’s toughest, and the 10th-toughest nationally. Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State are a combined 18-6.
“Who you play and when you play has an impact on your record,” Lynch said. “Illinois has played four really good teams.”
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Juice Williams was expected to be one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks. He’s a senior who rates among the most productive in Illinois history. But he has struggled so much that junior Eddie McGee started ahead of him against Michigan State. They are listed as even in the depth chart.
Williams has completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 628 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
He’s also rushed for 185 yards. McGee completes 51.2 percent of his passes for 242 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. He’s rushed for 74 yards.
Williams has thrived against IU. In three previous games, he’s thrown for 559 yards and seven touchdowns against two interceptions.
Last year, he completed 16-of-22 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-13 win.
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Bryan Payton was a bright spot in the Virginia loss. The former Concordia standout scored IU’s only touchdown on a 12-yard run. He carried six times for 32 yards.
For the season he’s rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought Bryan Payton, a fifth-year senior who hasn’t played much in the last two games, ran like a guy trying to win a job,” Lynch said. “I was proud of him.”
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IU needs big plays. It needs them fast and often. The Hoosiers aren’t a 16-play-drive team, at least not against Big Ten-caliber defenses, and Lynch knows it.
“We’ve got to find a way to get some bigger plays. Either you get it by a catch and run, or you get it in the running game with somebody breaking a tackle and getting a big gain.
“Against the quality of defenses we’re playing, it’s very difficult to beat them with 4- or 5-yard plays. If you do that, at some point they’re going to get a stop.”
Who are IU’s big-play players? Tandon Doss and Ray Fisher are tied at No. 1. Both have had 10 plays this season of at least 20 yards. Doss had two against Virginia with a 30-yard catch and a 21-yard kickoff return. Fisher had one against Virginia with a 56-yard kickoff return.