BLOOMINGTON — Defensive tackle Mick Mentzer understands the stakes. All the Indiana Hoosiers do. A two-game losing streak has to end. A homecoming game must be won. Momentum must be re-established.
In other words, beat Arkansas State.
“We have to bounce back,” Mentzer said. He's a former Bishop Dwenger standout. “We've had a couple of tough losses. Michigan was a tough one. We didn't come out strong against Ohio State and they took it to us.”
Enter the Red Wolves, a 2-4 team with a solid offense and bad defense. They have a knack for slow starts and strong finishes. They got crushed at Auburn 52-26, were competitive in a 34-24 loss to Louisville. They are coming off a 24-19 win at North Texas State.
The quality of Arkansas State is not the big issue. IU (3-2) playing like a bowl team is.
“This is a home game, it's homecoming and we've got to get this victory,” Mentzer said.
Victory must come despite a battered offensive line, a shaky defense and the bruised confidence suffered from that 38-10 Ohio State loss.
“It's not easy when you get beat like that,” quarterback Ben Chappell said. “It was just one game, but we have to respond. That's our only choice.”
Adding to the challenge is sophomore tailback Darius Willis' season-ending injury. IU officials announced Thursday afternoon Willis has a torn patellar tendon and will undergo surgery next Wednesday. He's expected to make a full recovery by next season.
Willis missed last Saturday's Ohio State game with what was termed a groin injury. He finished with 279 rushing yards and four touchdowns this season. He also caught 11 passes for 102 yards and a TD. Last season he battled injuries while totaling 607 yards and six touchdowns.
Arkansas State has scored at least 24 points against everybody, including 26 against Auburn. Quarterback Ryan Aplin has thrown for 1,579 yards, 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has two big-play receivers in Allen Muse and Taylor Stockemer. Both average 18.9 yards a catch. Another receiver, Dwayne Frampton, has 28 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
Aplin is as much a running back as he is a quarterback. He's rushed a team-high 77 times for 207 yards. Derek Lawson has rushed for a team-leading 289 yards. Three other running backs have rushed for at least 99 yards.
“They are an explosive team and a very wide-open team,” coach Bill Lynch said. “There is probably more you have to defend against than any other team we've played this year. They will run a lot of things and they feed off big plays. They will run trick plays. There is a lot in their arsenal we have to get ready for.”
Arkansas State is a second-half team, outscoring opponents 74-55 in the last two quarters. It has rushed for at least 158 yards in its last four games. It has 35 plays that have gone at least 20 yards.
“They have great skill,” Lynch said. “Their quarterback is a good player. Their offensive line returns intact for the most part. They have good skill on the outside.”
This is especially concerning for a defense that ranks among the Big Ten's worst in every big category.
“We've given up more big plays in the run game than the pass game,” Lynch said. “You would think it would be the other way around. Our run defense has been very good with a few exceptions, and those exceptions have been the big plays that have hurt us. The unfortunate thing is too many of them have gone for touchdowns.”
One area of strength has been the turnover margin. IU has seven takeaways against five turnovers. Only Wisconsin, with four, has fewer turnovers.
“That's been a huge point of emphasis this year,” Chappell said. “We still have to get better at it. We have three picks in two Big Ten games and those have hurt.”