Hoosiers hope to use disappointments as fuel for turnaround
BLOOMINGTON — Indiana coach Tom Allen relied on a single word to motivate his team this offseason.
He believes an inability to do so is why the Hoosiers blew fourth-quarter leads against Michigan State and Maryland last fall, why they failed to capture a milestone overtime win against Michigan in October and wound up falling flat at Purdue in November. Those four losses sealed Indiana’s postseason fate in 2017 — and Allen doesn’t expect to see a repeat this fall.
“We have to change the way we play. It’s pretty simple, we have to finish,” the second-year coach said late last month in Chicago. “We play with unbelievable toughness. We’ve competed for 60 minutes. Now it’s time to finish.”
The message has resonated throughout the locker room over the past nine months.
Talk to proven playmakers such as safety-linebacker Marcelino Ball or receiver Nick Westbrook or assistant defensive coordinator Mark Hagen or newcomers such as quarterbacks Brandon Dawkins and Michael Penix Jr. — and they all speak with a singular voice.
It’s time to use last season’s close calls and failures to spur a turnaround in 2018.
“I’d like to say that, yeah,” Ball said. “The goal is to win.”
Getting their top ball-hawk back on defense after he missed all but three games last fall with a left knee injury certainly will help.
Getting Westbrook, the Hoosiers’ top receiver in 2016 who went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament on the opening kickoff of last year’s season opener, also helps.
Both return healthy and confident they can make a difference.
“I’ll just say physically, I’m a lot stronger, a lot faster than I’ve been before,” Westbrook said. “Having (last) year off, I was kind of grabbing my thoughts and have a better mindset toward the game, realizing I can’t take it for granted and have to go after it every day.”
Indiana lost only one offensive starter, top receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr., from a unit that averaged 26.8 points and finished in the upper half of a stacked Big Ten in scoring. Westbrook should help fill the void.
Ball is one of four starters returning from a defense that finished 27th nationally in total defense.
But players insist what they really need to take the next step is a knockout punch.
“I want to actually win more games than we’ve won in history,” sophomore receiver Whop Philyor said. “Those are my expectations for us, and finishing.”
Here are some other things to watch this season:
QB CAROUSEL: Redshirt sophomore Peyton Ramsey began preseason camp as the incumbent after starting four games last season. Keeping the job will be a challenge. He must fend off Dawkins, a graduate transfer who started 14 games at Arizona, and Penix, who could become the Hoosiers quarterback of the future after decommitting from Tennessee. Allen has dropped no hints yet about who might start in the opener.
PRESSURE PRESENCE: Indiana’s top three sack artists — Tegray Scales, Robert McCray III and Greg Gooch — graduated. But the coaching staff isn’t fretting. Defensive tackle Jacob Robinson should move into a starting spot after recording four sacks last season, and Allen Stallings IV (three sacks) opened camp listed behind Nick Sykes at defensive end. And with fifth-year senior Dameon Willis Jr. and emerging Reakwon Jones leading the charge at linebacker, the Hoosiers think they can every bit as good in 2018.
“I think athletically it has a chance to be better,” Hagen said. “But we can talk all about it, we’ve got to go out and prove it.”
TURNOVER TURNAROUND: Indiana forced only 13 turnovers in 12 games last season. Everyone understands that number must improve this year.
“It killed us in the games we lost, it killed us throughout the season,” Hagen said, noting the Hoosiers dropped at least 10 interceptions last year. “We’ve got to do a better job on defense.”
SCHEDULE: The Hoosiers need a good start. After opening the season Sept. 1 at Florida International, they return home for dates against Virginia, Ball State and Michigan State. The most rugged part is a six-game stretch in which they visit Ohio State (Oct. 6) and Michigan (Nov. 17) and host Penn State (Oct. 20).