Looking up for Hoosier football

BY RYAN YOUNG | AUGUST 21, 2009 7:07 AM

Undoubtedly, Big Ten football in the state of Indiana went from comfortably mediocre to taxingly abysmal last year — especially for Cream and Crimson fans, who suffered through a bowl-less 3-9 season in Bloomington.

After opening the 2008 season with a pair of nonconference wins, the Hoosiers endured two lengthy losing streaks, the latter culminating in a mortifying 62-10 loss to Purdue, which finished ninth in the conference with four wins.

“Toward the end of the season, especially after the last game, the juniors about to be seniors, we got together and said, ‘This is not going to happen our senior year. We’re fed up with this,’ ” senior defensive end Jammie Kirlew said at the Big Ten football media days in Chicago in July. “We communicated, got the leadership installed, and the whole off-season, we’ve been focused on preparing and bringing along the young guys.”

Communication and leadership certainly would have helped the Indiana offense last year.

Practically the only potent offensive player was running back Marcus Thigpen, who racked up 1,719 all-purpose yards for seven touchdowns while averaging 22.4 yards per kick return on special teams.

Headed by quarterback Kellen Lewis, the Hoosiers ranked near the bottom of several statistical categories at season’s end, barely beating out Michigan to finish 10th in scoring offense (31 touchdowns for 246 points), pass efficiency (108.9), and third-down conversions (47-for-170 27.6 percent).

They also had the worst red-zone offense in the conference, scoring 15 touchdowns with the goal line well in sight.

But with Lewis having been dismissed from the team because of an unspecified violation of team rules in late April, the reins have been handed over to redshirt junior Ben Chappell, who said the team spent much of the spring and summer finding an identity.

“I think the leadership of the team is going to help us because last year, I felt like sometimes no one knew how to win,” said Chappell, who started under center during the Hoosiers’ 21-19 upset win against then-No. 22 Northwestern last October. “No one really knew what to say. No one really knew how to push through. If the other team ran a 99-yard touchdown on us, we didn’t know how to respond.”

Responding on the gridiron shouldn’t be difficult this time around, though. Indiana returns 35 upperclassmen — 17 scholarship seniors and 18 scholarship juniors — including senior defensive end and 2007 All-American Greg Middleton, who put up solid numbers last season.

He had four sacks, five tackles for loss, and 14 solo tackles alongside fellow defensive lineman Kirlew, who finished second in sacks in the Big Ten with 10.5.

The Hoosiers also boast some veteran experience at linebacker, where junior Tyler Replogle will join seniors Will Paterson and Matt Mayberry. Replogle, who recorded 38 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery last season for Indiana, replaces former teammate Geno Johnson, a four-year starter at strong-side linebacker.

“I think any good football team goes the way your leadership and upperclassmen play — particularly your seniors,” head coach Bill Lynch said on July 26 in Chicago. “I really like the leadership of this group.”

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