Ekeler isn't discouraged. He sees potential amid the struggles. Cornerback Lawrence Barnett's 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Virginia personified the kind of big-play defense Ekeler and fellow co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory hope to build.
Still, the Hoosiers need to do more. They've got two more non-conference games — Saturday against South Carolina State at Memorial Stadium and Sept. 24 at North Texas — to get it right before Big Ten battles begin.
The goal is to play championship-level defense, which starts with making game-deciding plays. IU had its opportunity late against Virginia while holding a 31-23 lead. It needed to make a stop. It couldn't. The Cavaliers drove 77 yards in 15 plays for a touchdown, got the two-point conversion, then forced a fumble that led to the game-winning field goal.
“We can do a better job as coaches of getting our guys in better position,” Ekeler said, “but ultimately you can make any call work. There's got to be a sense of get what you earn. As a staff and players, we didn't earn what we set out to do — win the game.”
This has been a long-term Hoosier problem, which is why coach Kevin Wilson has pushed to change the mindset around the program. It centers around confidence and belief. Late against Virginia Ekeler pushed that theme hard.
“When we got up I was telling them, ‘Guys, we're not hoping to win. We're going to win this (darn) thing. That's the mentality you have to have. (The heck with) hoping. That's over and done with. You've got to will your way to it. You've got to expect it. Demand it. That's the heart of what we're trying to get over.”For those looking for a sure win, don't look at South Carolina State (1-1). This defensive-minded group is ranked No. 23 in the FCS (formerly known as NCAA Division I-AA). It has won at least a share of three straight Mideastern Athletic Conference titles and is positioned to make it four straight after beating favorite Bethune Cookman 26-18 last week.
The Bulldogs, who lost at Central Michigan 21-6 in the season opener, are led by safety Christian Thompson, who has 21 tackles and two interceptions. Linebacker Donovan Richard has 22 tackles.
South Carolina State held Central Michigan to 256 total yards, including just 88 on the ground. It scored nine points against Bethune Cookman on Ron Ferguson's safety and Dominique Ellis' 55-yard interception return for a TD, which was why coach Buddy Pough said, “I have never coached a better defensive effort.”
Offense is the Bulldogs' Achilles heel. First-year starting quarterback Derrick Wiley has struggled, going 19-for-45 for 124 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, he rushed for 121 yards on 19 carries against Bethune Cookman. Quarterback Richard Cue also has seen action that includes one touchdown pass and one interception. Tailback Asheton Jordan has 71 rushing yards for the season.
Pough has a 76-30 record in nine years. In the last three seasons the Bulldogs went 29-8 and made three straight national playoff appearances.
“They're a good, athletic team,” cornerback Lawrence Barnett said. “Hopefully we'll listen to what the coaches are telling us, buy into that and it should be a good game. Hopefully we'll come out with a W.”IU defensive end Kevin Bush, a former Homestead standout, is featured in this week's ESPN the Magazine as part of a story on three Iraq veterans who have returned to pursue NCAA athletic dreams. The story, titled “Coming home, playing on,” is part of an issue dedicated to 9/11.
Bush talks about not knowing all the answers, but trying to pass on what he has learned from his experience and mistakes. Wilson says that Bush is a man who “makes a commitment and keeps his word,” and who provides a “great lesson for the younger guys.”
Also featured in the story are Florida State forward Bernard James and Tulsa rower Stephanie Rogers.