BLOOMINGTON -- Defensive numbers are not Indiana's friends. Mike Ekeler understands that. How could he not? The Hoosiers own last place in three of the Big Ten's four key defensive statistics.
They are last in scoring defense, allowing 33.4 points. They are last in total defense, allowing 454.9 yards. They are last in run defense, allowing 235.5 yards.
The result -- a 4-7 record and a couple of what-might-have-been losses.
As IU's co-defensive coordinator, Ekeler sees beyond the numbers. He sees an improving group with one last chance -- Saturday's Old Oaken Bucket battle at rival Purdue -- to show that improvement.
“We've got to get back to fundamentals, to playing our tails off,” he says. “To playing with our hair on fire.
“You can talk about statistics all you want, and everybody will. That's fine. That's how you're measured. In statistics. In wins and losses.
“But my main statistic is this whole year we played one game (Wisconsin) and maybe another quarter (Penn State) where I haven't been proud of our defense.”
Ekeler is a passionate coach, a feisty coach, a coach who will get in your face or pat your back depending on your performance. Either way, you know where you stand, and on Saturday that stand will be trying to stuff Purdue and regain the Bucket it lost last year.
“Our kids have competed hard,” Ekeler says. “They've played through a lot of adversity. We're going to bring it for 60 minutes.
“What I look at is how hard you play, are you in position to make plays and are you making them? As a coach, that's my job. That's what it boils down to.”
Purdue's middle-of-the-pack offense -- it is third in pass offense (228.6 yards), sixth in rushing offense (163.2 yards), eighth in scoring (27.5 points) and seventh in total offense (391.8 yards) -- can play fast or patient, depending on the situation.
“They'll throw it all over; they spread you out,” Ekeler says. “They make you make plays in space. They have tremendous team speed. There's a reason why they're pretty good.”
IU's postseason hopes are over. The season ends Saturday. Still, the Hoosiers have won three more games than last year, in coach Kevin Wilson's debut season. They easily could have beaten Ball State (a 41-39 loss) and Navy (a 31-30 defeat) and reached the six-win bowl eligibility standard.
“I think we've made some solid progress,” Wilson said. “The foundation has taken off. We're moving. We've had a little bit more success.
“We have an opportunity to get our third Big Ten win, and to get two of them on the road. We have an opportunity to win a rival game. That would be a nice finish.”
IU comes in with a two-game losing streak, having lost to Wisconsin (62-14) and Penn State (45-22). But it has the Big Ten's No. 1 passing offense (307.8 yards a game), a high-speed attack that averages 30.4 points and a defense that hits hard even amid the struggles.
Those are signs that the Hoosiers are building toward a brighter future.
“Our standard internally is a little higher than most people outside the program would think it would be,” Wilson says. “We've got a long way to go.
“We're not trying to be competitive. We're not trying to be close. We cautioned our team early in the year not to accept getting patted on the back for being in a close game.
“Our objective is to win. Play football that matches this school, because this is an awesome school and it deserves an awesome team. You're going to be pushing, pushing, pushing. I don't think any coach will ever say he is over the hump. Because once you get there and have some success, the ability to maintain it will even be harder than building.”