BLOOMINGTON -- If you look at the numbers, Indiana's secondary is in for a world of hurt Saturday night against Ohio State, but who needs numbers in this mindset-changing Hoosier era.
Kenny Mullen doesn't. He's a sophomore cornerback who regularly draws opponents' best receivers, which means he will sometimes get beat. No matter. He has the faith, in himself, and the rest of the defensive backs, that this shall pass.
“During the week in practice we build our confidence up,” he says. “When it comes to the games, it's nothing we haven't seen. The coaches throw every route, every concept, out there, so when we come out on Saturdays, it's time to relax, play and do your job.”
As far as occasionally getting beat, Mullen says “that comes with being a DB. You want to make plays, but chances are a receiver might make a play. It's about having a short-term memory and shaking it off, so when you come to the next play, you win it.”
Michigan State was mediocre, at best, in passing, then turned into the New England Patriots against the Hoosiers. The Spartans threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
Indiana ranks 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense efficiency and in pass defense. Still, it contained Michigan State's bruising rushing game and consistently rocked the Spartans with physical play.
“We played an aggressive game,” Mullen says. “That's what we need to do week in and week out.”
As co-defensive coordinator, Mike Ekeler helps set that aggressive tone. Aggression is part of the plan to contain an explosive Ohio State offense led by dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller. That offense peaked during last Saturday's 63-38 win over then No. 21 Nebraska.
“Their offense is extremely multiple,” Ekeler says. “They've got playmakers all the way across the board. Great tight ends. Great receivers. A quarterback who could be one of the more electrifying athletes I've ever seen. I've seen a lot of great players over the years, a ton of guys right up there with the Reggie Bushes. He's pretty phenomenal. He's a special athlete. He makes them very hard to handle.”
Nebraska couldn't handle the Buckeyes. Miller had 313 total yards, including 186 yards rushing. Tailback Carlos Hyde rushed for 140 yards and four touchdowns.
Miller makes the Buckeyes go, just as Denard Robinson does at Michigan. The run-and-pass threat puts stress even on the most solid of defenses.
“When you're talking about a running quarterback,” Ekeler says, “in order to be gap sound you need an extra hat (defender). To do that, in essence you're in zero coverage (man coverage with no help).
“You've got to tweak some things in the way you're doing it up front. You have to be smart with your movements. You always have to account for (Miller). That's what makes their offense really good. They have playmakers on the edge, playmakers at running back, and a really good offensive line. They spread you out and make you make plays in space with one of the most electrifying players in college football.
“They're hitting their stride. They'll be a big challenge for us.”
IU had its own dual-threat quarterback with Tre Roberson. But his season ending injury leaves more traditional quarterbacks Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld running the offense.
“No disrespect (to Coffman and Sudfeld),” coach Kevin Wilson said, “but that is where Tre gives us an edge. It's one more threat. He's a more truer runner. Tre isn't the runner that Braxton is, but that's part of our offense that's kind of gone away since he's been out.”
The Hoosiers come in at 2-3 with a three-game losing streak. Ohio State is 6-0 and looking more and more like a team that could finish undefeated. The Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
This is Indiana's third home night game of the season, and a large crowd is expected, including a lot of Ohio State fans. Waiting all day to play, Mullen says, takes its toll.
“I wake up on Saturday and I'm ready to go,” he says. “Night games I get kind of jittery during the day. I like to get after it early.”
Besides team meetings, Mullen says the players will watch college games during the afternoon.
“You learn from other guys. You also evaluate more film on your opponent. That can be a plus, but no matter what, 8 o'clock start or noon start, we have to come to play.”