BLOOMINGTON -- In an ideal Cream and Crimson football world, Kenny Mullen will not have to tackle Ohio State do-everything quarterback Braxton Miller on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium. The Indiana cornerback will focus on shutting down Buckeye receivers and tackling running backs, including former Harding standout Rod Smith.
But nothing is ideal, certainly not when facing an offense that just staggered Nebraska for 63 points behind a dual-threat quarterback co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler calls “one of the most electrifying athletes I've ever seen.”
“They have a great quarterback,” Mullen says. “We just have to make him beat us throwing the ball rather than running it.”
As No. 8 Ohio State's 6-0 start suggests, that won't be easy. Miller has passed and thrown his way into Heisman Trophy consideration. He ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing at 763 yards, plus eight touchdowns. That 127.1-yard average ranks 11th nationally. He's also thrown for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 61.5 percent of his passes.
Four times this season he's had more than 300 yards of total offense, including 313 in last Saturday's rout of Nebraska. That earned him the Davey O'Brien quarterback of the week award, an honor given to the nation's top passing performer each week.
So even while Mullen covers receivers, he understands he might have to get very personal with Miller. As last Saturday's career-high eight solo tackles against Michigan State suggests, the former Bishop Luers standout is getting better at that.
“It keeps us on edge,” he says. “It's hard to be in coverage knowing that at any minute (Miller) could be pulling the ball down and running. We have to keep good pressure on him. Keep him in the pocket. Force him to make tough throws. Just come after him all night.”
Nebraska knew all this, and couldn't do it. Now the Hoosiers (2-3) get their shot. Mullen insists he will keep his primary focus on coverage and resist peeking to see what Miller is doing (a sure way to disaster).
“We have to focus on the receiver,” Mullen says. “We can't worry about (Miller). We know our linebackers and our defensive line will do their jobs and contain him. We have no doubt about that. They'll come and play. We just know if the receiver turns around and tries to block us, that's when we know (Miller) is running.”
While IU's defense remains a work in progress, it demonstrated a tougher-minded approach against Michigan State. The Hoosiers hit hard and often, knocking multiple Spartans to the sidelines with minor injuries. They limited Michigan State's bruising rushing game, especially in the first half.
Indiana's second-half fade (a 17-point lead became a four-point loss) doesn't diminish the signs of improvement. That includes the pass coverage, although enough work remains that coach Kevin Wilson has quipped that if IU defensive backs had good ball skills, they'd be receivers.
“We've been playing the routes better,” Mullen says. “We're being confident in the routes and not panicking. A couple of weeks ago against Ball State we had two pass interference calls because we panicked. (Against Michigan State) me and (fellow cornerback Brian Williams) just played the ball and showed our confidence and level of play and how much we've been paying attention to film.”
How confident are Mullen and the secondary?
“I've learned that our secondary can play with anybody. We can guard anybody. We've had a lot of confidence built up over these past five games. We're coming along as a group so much.”
Still, the defensive numbers remain less than impressive. IU ranks 12th in the Big Ten in total defense (441.0 yards allowed) and run defense (194.8 yards), 11th in scoring defense (27.8 points) and pass defense efficiency, and 10th in pass defense (246.2 yards allowed).
Those numbers don't diminish Mullen's optimism.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “I feel our defense will be the top defense in the Big Ten. Our offense will put up points. We just have to get stops. We have to put a whole 60 minutes together.”
Saturday would be a great place to start.