The Hoosiers (6-6) face a huge opportunity against Utah (8-4) Wednesday night at the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif., in part because some of its freshmen have played beyond their years.
Take Coy Cronk, a 6-3, 295-pound left tackle out of Lafayette Central Catholic. He earned 247Sports True Freshman All-America honors after starting all 12 games. He’s the second Hoosier offensive lineman to do that, matching current Green Bay Packer Jason Spriggs.
Cronk was a standout offensive lineman and linebacker in high school, and was part of two state title teams. He set the Central Catholic record for career tackles. An all-around athlete, he was also an all-state baseball catcher.
Not getting him, former Purdue interim coach Gerad Parker said, “really hurt.”
While offensive line coach Greg Frey has a track record of developing outstanding offensive linemen, Cronk’s quick acclimation was “unusual,” coach Tom Allen said.
“I don’t know anybody would have projected that. That’s a tough position to be a true freshman. Usually you’re not physically ready to play a line position in the Big Ten at that age.
“That’s a tremendous thing on his part to accomplish that. He has a bright future. He’s a special player. He doesn’t get too caught up in himself.”
Take defensive back Marcelino Ball, who also earned 247 Sports freshman honors after totaling 73 tackles with seven pass breakups and three takeaways.
Ball’s instant-impact play reflects growing up in a football family out of Georgia. Three older brothers played college football and one, Marcus, is a defensive back for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“Sometimes you target a guy and think he’ll do certain things and it doesn’t pan out that way,” Allen said. “Recruiting is an inexact science. You don’t know how a kid will respond.
“We saw these qualities in him. The things we told him in the recruiting process he could do, he came and did. That’s pretty cool.”
It reflects an IU staff that embraces a play-them-young-if-they-can-handle-it approach.
“Our philosophy is this — if they’re good enough to play and they’re better than the guy in front of them, regardless of age, they’ll play,” Allen said.
“Kids today are so much more ready to play right way in college than they were, say, 10 years ago. That’s why you see so many more freshmen contribute early.
“It used to be that everybody wanted to redshirt all the freshmen, but then, you realized, these kids are ready to go. If they can do it, we’ll play them.”
IU seeks its first bowl victory since 1991, when it beat Baylor 24-0 in the Copper Bowl. Last year it lost a high-scoring shootout to Duke in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The Hoosiers are 5.5-point underdogs against Utah, which was a top-10 team before losing three of its last four games.
“The big thing for us,” Indiana linebacker Marcus Oliver said, “is to have fun. There will be good and bad in the game. Last year we let the bad get the best of us. This year we’re more experienced. We battled in every game all year.”
Like IU, the Utes have struggled with turnovers and scoring in the red zone. They are led by quarterback Troy Williams (2,579 passing yards, 246 rushing yards, 20 total touchdowns), tailback Joe Williams (1,185 yards, nine touchdowns), All-America punter Mitch Wishnowski (47.98-yard average) and defensive end Dimick Hunter (20 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks).
“They’re a big team,” receiver Ricky Jones said. “They play hard. With us being in the Big Ten, we go up against that. We’ll be ready for them.”
Added Oliver: “They have a Big Ten-type of offensive line — big and strong. They have a running back (Joe Williams) who is really fast, really good. The quarterback makes a lot of good decisions. They run their plays with discipline. It will be a test for us to be disciplined and stay with our jobs.”
Allen said he will have watched every Utah game by kickoff, and one thing stands out.
“It’s their defensive line. They are so disruptive. Any time you can force the quarterback to throw early and under duress, it’s a good thing. Pressure will affect him. Pressure affects everybody. That’s their key.”
UP NEXT: Indiana vs. Utah, Foster Farms Bowl, Santa Clara, Calif.
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
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