BLOOMINGTON -- It's time for Indiana to stop being fodder for Ball State. Yes, you read that right. The Hoosiers have lost their last two meetings with their Mid-American Conference opponent and it has to stop.
That million-dollar question will be answered Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Here's a hint -- the answer will be yes.
Let's start with what we know. IU is bigger, stronger, faster than last year's Kevin Wilson debut version and is boosted by a pair of season-opening victories. Sure, Indiana State and Massachusetts don't represent a murderer's row schedule, but when you're coming off a 1-11 season, any victory is sweet.
A solid year in Mark Hill's strength training program has better prepared the Hoosiers for the physical battles they'll face on the line of scrimmage. And make no mistake, this game will be decided by the offensive and defensive lines.
IU starts a pair of freshmen on the offensive line in left tackle Jason Spriggs and right guard Dan Feeney. They play beyond their years and they'll have to against a defensive line boosted by the arrival of Ohio State transfer Jonathon Newsome at defensive end. The 6-3, 236-pound junior was suspended for the first two games and sat out last year because of NCAA transfer rules.
The Hoosiers will play fast, which can wear down a defense. Last year that uptempo approach worked for about a half before Ball State's more physical line squeezed the life out of the IU attack.
You have to believe, even with a pair of freshman offensive linemen, Indiana won't let that happen again.
Quarterback is a question mark now that starter Tre Roberson is out for the season after breaking his leg last Saturday against Massachusetts. Cam Coffman will start if he had a good week of practice (we don't know because practices are closed). He's a junior college transfer who looked solid against Massachusetts' bend-and-break defense. The Cardinals' unit is made of tougher stuff, but it reminds no one of the Steel Curtain. It is especially vulnerable against the pass (giving up 279 yards a game) and the Hoosiers will try to exploit that.
Improving the passing game is one of Wilson's top priorities, and that won't change with Roberson gone. Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld will throw. Don't be surprised if they throw deep early.
“We've got to be a little more explosive in the passing game,” offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said.” We'e not getting as many big plays like we should. Some of that is on me. I'm making sure we're not being too overly aggressive. We have to get better.”
Another thought -- the Hoosiers have allowed just one sack all season. Ball State hasn't had a sack all year. Figure Coffman and Sudfeld will have time to throw.
If IU controls the line of scrimmage, it will run effectively behind Tevin Coleman, Stephen Houston and D'Angelo Roberts and showcase the offensive balance Wilson and Littrell are looking for.
In the end, it will come down to defense, a much maligned unit for a reason – it's basically stunk for nearly 20 years. Indiana has to get to Ball State quarterback Keith Wenning, and there's reason for optimism given the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten -- yes, lead the Big Ten -- in sacks, with eight.
However, Ball State has only allowed two sacks this season, and that's with playing top-15 Clemson.
While Wenning's numbers are solid (60 percent completions, 197.5 yards a game), he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass, but has thrown two interceptions.
A Hoosier secondary that includes a pair of former Bishop Luers standouts -- Kenny Mullen and Lawrence Barnett -- has to play solid.
IU's defensive strength is its line, anchored by veteran defensive tackles Larry Black and Adam Replogle. It faces a big, strong, veteran offensive line that has a combined 119 career starts. That's the biggest reason why the Cardinals rush for 290.5 yards a game.
The Hoosiers cannot let that happen.
Finally, the Hoosiers are playing at home. Memorial Stadium doesn't provide the advantage of, say, Michigan's Big House, but it will help.
With a bye week next, this is IU's last non-conference game before Big Ten play begins Sept. 29 at Northwestern. The Hoosiers want to go in undefeated.
Hoosier keys to success
1. Control the line of scrimmage – Ball State surprisingly manhandled IU up front last year. Much of that was due to the Hoosiers losing weight to get fitter. After a year, they are bigger and stronger. Are they more effective? Well see.
2. Shut down the run – Ball State ranks eighth nationally in rushing, averaging 290.5 yards. The Hoosiers need to knock off at least 100 yards from that average. Defensive tackles Larry Black and Adam Replogle are the keys.
3. Pressure QB Keith Wenning – IU cannot let Wenning get comfortable in the pocket. It must pressure him, hit him, blitz him, sack him. He's a veteran with 24 straight starts. The Hoosiers must make him miserable.
4. Big game from Coffman – Junior college transfer Cam Coffman is making his first college start. He has to play smart and efficient. He cannot -- cannot -- turn the ball over. Oh, yes. He has to stay healthy.
5. Run the ball -- The best way to take pressure off Coffman is to control the game with the run. The line has to block well. Tailbacks Stephen Houston, Tevin Coleman and D'Angelo Roberts all need to average at least 4.0 yards a carry.