Michigan State travels to Bloomington Saturday to face an Indiana team it has beaten seven straight times. The Hoosiers haven’t held the Old Brass Spittoon since Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing.
Another easy W, right? Seriously, can you think of a better way to wipe away the stench of the Wisconsin game than a game against Indiana. We’re not talking hoops here.
Well, the Spartans (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten) have their fair share of issues to deal with that Wisconsin exposed. Indiana (2-1, 0-0), for all of its faults and failings on the football field, has thrown the ball better than any other Big Ten team the past five seasons and junior quarterback Richard Lagow will test Michigan State’s defense.
Lagow did throw five interceptions last Saturday in a 33-28 loss to Wake Forest but he also had a school-record 496 yards passing. Wide receiver Ricky Jones caught 8 passes for 208 yards. More importantly, the IU defense has shown improvement under new defensive coordinator Tom Allen.
Zach Osterman has been covering Indiana football for the past decade, including the last two years for the Indianapolis Star. He took some time this week to speak with Landof10.com about the Hoosiers, the progress the program has made under sixth-year head coach Kevin Wilson and what the next step is for a team that went to just its second bowl game in 22 years last season.
Q: Is this IU team different compared to past teams in terms of being able to compete in the Big Ten East division?
A: It’s a team that offensively is very much made in Kevin Wilson’s image. It’s a team that’s got more of a traditional run game. It will run out of the spread, but you won’t see a lot of read-option. There’s not a lot of dual-threat looks. It’s very much building up the run to set up the vertical passing game. Richard Lagow is a quarterback with a very big arm. He can stretch the field that way.
Defensively is where the big changes have come the last few months. They hired Tom Allen, who had spent three years coaching linebackers at Ole Miss and then a year as the defensive coordinator at South Florida, and he brought in the 4-2-5 scheme. Kevin Wilson has always been quick to say that he’s not all too worried about scheme. What he was looking for when he made the change at defensive coordinator was a guy who could instill confidence and trust. He sees in his offense this borderline elite expectation, which is understandable.
They’ve had a 2,000-yard rusher in the last couple of years, two 1,000-yard rushers, the all-time leading passer in school history who just graduated last season, Nate Sudfeld (now with the Washington Redskins), so they’ve had those kinds of offenses. What he’s looking for is a coach who can build maybe those same kinds of defenses. Not necessarily the best defense in the Big Ten but a defense that can compete in the Big Ten East. For too long, for too much of Wilson’s tenure, Indiana’s defense has quite frankly been not even borderline terrible, they’ve just been bad.
Ultimately, I think a lot of four-lineman sets have ultimately become something of a 4-2-5 because of how many spread offenses teams have to get ready for. If they have to face a team that’s going to run downhill, as Tom Allen says ‘Just honking at you’ as the way Michigan State probably will a little bit, the way Michigan probably will a little bit, they’ll put a third linebacker on the field, or at least they have the capability of doing that. It’s a very flexible defense. That’s probably the biggest change from recent years.
Q: How has Lagow been through the first three games?
A: It’s strange. He’s been great except he threw five interceptions against Wake Forest. That sounds sort of damning with incredibly fake praise but in just about everything else he’s been good. In that same game against Wake, he set a single-game program record for most passing yards with 496. He did not turn over the ball in either of his first two starts. The Wake game just kind of felt like one or two mistakes that snowballed. Not just on him, but on the offense. Kevin Wilson was quick to say that with the receivers the interceptions were not all on him. There were a couple that tipped off of players’ hands, there was one where he got hit hard as he was throwing the ball. Wilson said one was a greedy play call on his part that put Lagow in a really bad situation.
It’s kind of strange. In one respect, Indiana’s offense has become one of the best in the Big Ten, but they’re probably not running the ball as well as they’d like. They have seen teams load the box to make Richard Lagow beat them. If you think that that five-interception performance against Wake is the exception and not the rule, then he’s had a very good start to the season. If you think that signals problems either with Lagow or larger problems within the offense, and I think it would be fair for people to feel that way just given how many the total volume of interceptions he threw, then that’s something that will bare itself out. I think October is a big month for him. You’re getting into the Big Ten consistently and you’re going to see defenses of that caliber.
You’re going to see a lot of defenses, knowing Indiana’s recent history of being able to run the football and also knowing they’ve got some injuries in the offensive line, I think you’re going to see a lot more defenses do what Wake Forest did, what Ball State did to some degree, and just load up and make Lagow beat them. I think he’s going to have to learn how.
Q: Kevin Wilson is in his sixth year. What’s his job status?
A: Well, he got a new contract after the bowl game last year, so he’s certainly not going anywhere soon. The next step for him, and I think he’d tell you this, is to follow up the bowl with even more progression. Not necessarily ‘we have to go back to another bowl this year’ or ‘we have to go back to a bowl next year’ but more just saying we’ve shown steady progress over the first five years that culminated in a bowl game. Now he’s got a new six-year contract, he’s making more money than any Indiana coach has ever made. He’s paying his assistants more than his assistants have ever made. I think the logical next step is let’s show even more progress. Let’s be patient about it but let’s find a way to become a more regular bowl team. They had numerous ranked opponents on the ropes last season at home, or at least were very close of winning against many of them. Let’s find a way to win some of those games.
Q: One of those games last year was in East Lansing (Michigan State won 52-26). It was a two-point game heading into the fourth quarter. How does IU take that next step?
A: I think they’ve just got to find a way to win those games. I know it sounds simplistic but the one sort of constant for Indiana over the last few years, and this goes through numerous coaching staffs, this goes through numerous athletic directors, but the lack of success is nothing new for IU football. I think one of the consistently big things is that they’ve found ways to not win games like that.
For all intents and purposes, they should have beaten Michigan last year here. They were very, very close against Ohio State. They weren’t maybe quite as close against Iowa but that still ended up a one-possession game. Michigan State was a one-possession game going into the fourth quarter before getting away from them late. It sounds simplistic but Kevin Wilson I think is someone who’d tell you, you learn to win those games by winning them finally. That’s the next big step for Indiana. Even going back to his second season I can remember them playing Michigan State close at home on Homecoming. I can remember them coming close to Penn State.
It’s not the first time they’ve been in moments like that, and they’ve won a couple of those games. They won at Missouri two seasons ago, and they probably would have been a bowl team if not for Sudfeld’s injury. They’ve given the suggestion that they sort of know how to get over that hurdle but to do it consistently, and for example to win Saturday, I think that’s something IU fans would look at and say that’s a big next step for our program. That’s after a bowl game, after a three-game win streak against Purdue, and all of the stuff that they’ve already constructed.
Q: Michigan State has won seven straight against IU. Why should Michigan State be wary of the Hoosiers?
A: Indiana is still a very good offensive football team. The interceptions aside, they’ve got the best passing offense in the Big Ten. Even with Simmie Cobbs’ injury, which is going to probably cost him the year, Lagow is quickly building an in-game rapport with guys like Nick Westbrook, Mitchell Paige and Ricky Jones. Jones had over 200 yards receiving last weekend. I guess what I’d say about a five-interception performance, if I’m going back and diagnosing it in my head, is there were definitely red flags but there were also some of those moments where you say, is that likely to happen again?
Nick Westbrook, a really promising sophomore wide receiver, is he likely to let a pass bounce off his hands and into an opponent’s hands again? Probably not. There’s one of your interceptions. You would think that Kevin Wilson learns from his mistake a little bit. There’s another of your interceptions. It’s one of those things were on its day Indiana is very good offensively. It is improving by leaps and bounds defensively. And Michigan State is a team that has had some highs and, obviously, some lows already this season. Michigan State is a team with questions about its current status and its immediate future in terms of the offense and to some extent the defense because of the injuries they’ll bring with them to Bloomington.
I don’t think it’s out of the question Indiana could win this game against Michigan State. I’m not saying they will. In fact, if you made me choose, I’d probably still go with Michigan State but Indiana has the tools to win the game, there’s no question.
Q: Is Indiana football better off than it was a year ago? As a program?
A: I think so. Obviously as a team you lose a senior quarter, you lose a 1,200-yard rusher, you lose a four-year left tackle, it’s going to take time to replace those things in a more infrastructural sense but I think overall, in terms of fan support, in terms of the continuity provided by Wilson’s contract – I think that contract empowers him to go out and get a guy like Tom Allen. I wrote this after they hired Allen, and this isn’t meant to sound flippant, but Indiana isn’t usually in the business of hiring coaches away from other schools that it would consider peers. Indiana has picked up defensive coordinators maybe by giving them promotions from position coaching spots, or grabbed guys who had good success at other schools and then were victims of coaching changes.
I think there’s a difference between that and a Big Ten team without an established history of success going to what I think you could consider a peer program in South Florida and taking their defensive coordinator away. I think that speaks to a level of progress and a level of continuity that has been achieved, and a level of investment. For a long, long time Indiana didn’t have the resources or the interest in investing heavily into football. Now that they’ve got the Big Ten Network money they’ve been prudent about it but they have put significantly more money into the program than they were doing seven, eight, 10 years ago.
So, yeah, I think Indiana football is better as an overall program than it was a year ago. Again, team-wise there have been some big departures that were just unavoidable that created some issues and created some gaps that need to be filled, but as a program I’d say so.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo