BLOOMINGTON — Indiana defensive tackle Larry Black shrinks a room just by entering it. He is listed at 6-2 and 326 pounds. He has a chest that looks as if it could withstand a sledgehammer attack.
When he says the Hoosiers will stop the run, believe him.
“That's our job,” he says. “I'm always trying to stop it. Whatever I have to do, like take on double teams. We have to be physical up front and take more control.”
Black is one of four rotating defensive tackles who comprise the heart of the IU defense. Another is Mick Mentzer, the former Bishop Dwenger standout who is listed at 6-4 and 303 pounds. They lead their position with three tackles each. They bear the brunt of the run-stopping duties, and despite Indiana's 2-0 start, vulnerability is evident.
Opponents average 185.5 rushing yards per game, by far the worst in the Big Ten. This is troubling given the fact neither Towson nor Western Kentucky has a Big Ten-caliber running attack.
“You have to be able to stop the run in critical situations,” coach Bill Lynch said. “We'll put a lot of emphasis on that this week.” Black's emphasis includes dealing with a barrage of double-team blocking. “Each week I'm getting better at it,” Black said. “I don't mind it. Let the linebackers make the plays.”
IU faces Akron (0-3) Saturday night in its final non-conference tune-up before opening Big Ten play against Michigan. The Wolverines have the conference's best rushing attack, at 286.3 yards.
“We have to play ball,” Black said. “We know what we're capable of. We feel we can stop anybody. We can play with anybody.”
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It's been a tough debut season for Akron coach Rob Ianello. Losses to Syracuse (29-3) and Kentucky (47-10) were expected. A 38-37 home overtime loss to Gardner-Webb was not.
Still, Ianello, the former recruiting coordinator and receivers coach at Notre Dame, believes the program is headed in the right direction. Akron has had four straight losing seasons, including a 3-9 record last year.
“We believe in our plan,” Ianello said. “We believe in what we're doing. We're not going to panic after three games.”
The Zips have struggled to run (a 3.3-yard-per-carry average) and stop the run (opponents average 4.9 yards a carry).
Passing has been even worse. Quarterback Patrick Nicely completes just 40.0 percent of his passes. He has thrown for only 333 yards in three games. By comparison, IU's Ben Chappell threw for 366 yards in last week's win over Western Kentucky.
Akron opponents complete 64.0 percent of their passes while throwing for 773 yards and seven touchdowns.
“We're continuing to work to get better,” Ianello said. “I hope (fans) execute a little bit of patience.”
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Saturday is IU's last game to get its running attack going. Its 127.5-yard rushing average is the Big Ten's worst. Tailback Darius Willis leads with 132 yards. No other Hoosier has run for more than 36 yards.
“We have to continue to run better,” Lynch said. “That is vital. There are times in games when you have to run the ball when the defense knows you're going to run. That's when you have to be good at it. Really good teams can will their way to run.”