The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten East to a team trying to finally break through for a winning record. Today’s look is at the …
1.Can they replace quarterback Nate Sudfeld?
After ending his 2014 season early due to a shoulder surgery, Nate Sudfeld came back last year and quietly became one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He posted a Big Ten-best 3,573 passing yards and 27 touchdowns to go against just seven interceptions. He was in many ways what kept Indiana in so many shootouts, even with the top teams in the conference, and replacing him will be priority No. 1 on offense.
Kevin Wilson could go with Zander Diamont, who struggled as the starter for the final six games in 2014 and missed this spring with an ankle injury. He could also look to sophomore Danny Cameron, the son of former head coach Cam Cameron.
But the likely starter seems to be junior Richard Lagow, who transferred from Cisco (Texas) Community College after he redshirted at Oklahoma State. Lagow lit it up at Cisco, tossing for 4,506 yards and 38 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in two years, good enough to rank him the No. 3 pro-style quarterback coming out of junior college last season, according to 247Sports.com’s composite averages.
At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with a powerful arm, Lagow appears to have a lot of Sudfeld in him, but replacing that kind of production will be tough, especially after jumping from junior college to arguably the best defensive conference in the country. The Hoosiers failed miserably the last time they tried with Diamont in 2014.
Even with 1,200-yard rusher Jordan Howard and blindside protector Jason Spriggs gone, the Hoosiers will have plenty of firepower back from the top offense in the Big Ten. Lagow will have another 1,000-yard rusher in Devine Redding, the third best yards-per-reception player in the conference in receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. and two more wideouts who combined for 1,500 yards in Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige.
He’ll also have Wilson’s playbook, which has shown it can light up even the best Big Ten defenses — try 41 points on Michigan in double overtime on Michigan, 27 on Ohio State, 27 on Iowa and 26 on Michigan State — when it has a great quarterback. Whether it will have that this year will be the big question.
2. Will a third defensive coordinator do the trick?
Indiana runs through defensive coordinators like it runs through opposing defenses these days. After Brian Knorr tried and failed miserably to improve upon Doug Mallory’s 120th-ranked 2013 defense, Tom Allen will be the man in charge of fixing the latest mess — 120th in total defense and 116th in scoring in 2015.
An Indiana native, Allen arrives to the Hoosiers after leading South Florida to the nation’s 35th scoring defense last season. He comes ready to install a 4-2-5 defense that will feature a hybrid linebacker/safety, something that fits well against spread offenses like Wilson’s unit but could be an odd fit in such a run-centric league.
In his favor, he’ll have every starter back from the back seven last year, although with Indiana’s No. 126 ranking against the pass, that might not be a good thing. He should find a couple chess pieces in junior linebacker Marcus Oliver, who became the first Indiana player in 15 years to finish with more than 100 tackles; and junior cornerback Rashard Fant, who finished second in the country with 22 pass breakups last year.
But trying to get the rest of a young and battered defensive backfield up to speed will be a major challenge, almost as much as welcoming in four new starters on the defensive line. In a division where top dogs Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all figure to be running teams, the difficulty is going to be extreme.
But Allen’s unit doesn’t need to be exceptionally good; even sub-par would be an immense improvement and could allow Indiana to win some more of the shootouts against top teams that continue to evade the program.
3. Can they find the confidence to break through in a big game?
The Hoosier program has taken every reasonable stride under Wilson except for knocking off one of the top teams on its conference schedule. Last year’s group came dangerously close, coming within a score of Ohio State (34-27), Iowa (35-27) and Michigan (48-41 in two overtimes). It also lost to Duke the Pinstripe Bowl, the program’s first postseason game since 2007, in a painful 44-41 fashion.
The reasons mostly come on defense — the Hoosiers can’t keep good offenses off the scoreboard, and it forces even more pressure on a great offense — but they’re mental, too. Part of knocking off a team like Ohio State is having the confidence to do it, and by failing to even get the final snap delivered near the goal line on the last play of that loss, the Hoosiers showed they just aren’t ready for big-time football yet.
But they’ll need to get there soon because the big boys of the Big Ten East are only going to get stronger under the current star coaches who run them. Going 0-4 against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State each year will give Indiana very little room for error in a schedule that could likely pull in a team from the West like Iowa, as it did last season.
But even more important than adding an extra victory to nudge toward the program’s first winning season since 2007, knocking off one of the conference’s blue bloods would send a vibe through the program that it’s ready to take another step under Wilson.
This year’s slate features home games against Michigan State and Penn State and road ones at Ohio State and Michigan, and it’s time to see if Indiana can finally get the marquee league win it’s been searching for.