BLOOMINGTON — The Indiana Hoosiers insist the team mood is fine. They are not hating life in the wake of yet another blown opportunity. They don't wish for the football season to end. They say they are pumped and primed for Illinois on Saturday and for these final four games that will determine their postseason future.
For those who say IU's bowl prospects ended with the 42-39 Minnesota loss, well, stay away from the Hoosier locker room. Negativity, it seems, has no place there.
“Our mood is fine,” senior tight end Ted Bolser says. “We don't look at it that so much is riding on each game. We're not deflated or down. We want to do as well as we can regardless of the opponent.”
The Hoosiers (3-5) end the season at home with Illinois (3-5) and Purdue (1-7), on the road at No. 21 Wisconsin (6-2) and at No. 4 Ohio State (9-0). They must win three of those games to become bowl eligible. They will be underdogs in both road games.
“People say we can't beat Ohio State or Wisconsin,” Bolser says. “We don't look at it that way.”
Coach Kevin Wilson won't let them.
“We've talked a lot about four weeks to go. Prognosticators would say everything's over. But in our world, there is a lot of football to play, a lot of things we can accomplish.
“The best thing to do, and it's our constant goal, is consistent improvement, constant improvement.”
Wilson sees optimism in the fact IU, despite a three-game losing streak, pushed Michigan and Minnesota to the limit. The Hoosiers had a chance to win both in the fourth quarter. That they did not shows that, while much progress has been made in Wilson's three seasons, much more is needed.
“We haven't been able to get over the hump,” he says. “We're getting close. We're in those games. Our deal is we've got to keep fighting and pushing and knock that thing down.”
Fighting gets harder when you lose games you should win.
“I wouldn't say we're blowing games as much as we're playing some good teams, we're getting in close games, and we're not executing at the end,” Wilson says. “We've got to make a play. We've got to make good play calls. We've got to get stops. We need to get Ws. It solidifies what you're doing and keeping the energy of your fan base and recruiting.
“The team is right there. That is our deal. We're at that part of the race where you can keep pushing or stop, and we've come too far to stop pushing.”
Wilson delivered that message to his coaches.
“I tried to rally the coaches, and said, 'Man, these kids are giving us a good go. They're fighting. We've got to keep coaching them better, pushing them to do better.
“There's a lot of positive energy (in the program). We've got a lot of good guys buying in.”
One of those assistant coaches, offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, says he called, rather than Wilson, the swing pass that resulted in Saturday's victory-costing fumble. He said Minnesota tricked him into running that play with a disguised pre-snap defensive look.
“They got me good,” he says. “They did a great job of bluffing me.”
Yes, Littrell adds, he has second guessed himself a lot in the last few days.
“Absolutely. One-hundred percent.”
And then …
“We've got to continue to build, continue to grow,” he says. “I've got to get better as a coach.”
Better does not mean playing it safe.
“I'm for being aggressive and scoring touchdowns,” Littrell says. “That's what I'm always trying to do.”
That approach mirrors that of Wilson, who also likes to take shots, such as the second two-point try late against Minnesota. If that means critics come after him, well, noise beats silence.
“We've gotten to the point, and it's nice to feel some (fan) frustration, because there is a point in time I don't know if anyone really cares sometimes.
“I kind of like some fans that are upset. That's what you want. You want them in the stands. You want them loud. You want them critical. That is part of a good football program is you have to energize fans.”
Wilson was hired to build a winning program. He sees silver linings in the never-ending defeats.
“We're making some gains, but we've got to get Ws. We've got some great opportunities. Let's keep knocking on it and knocking it down.
“I'm telling you, these guys are close, and it's my job to keep it coming. We can get close and fall short, or we can get close and keep coming. My deal is let's don't change. Let's keep fighting and competing. To me, it's the hardest step because it's the next step.”