By MICHAEL MAROT
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Indiana is hungry.
It’s been a month since the Hoosiers last won a game. It’s been six years since they last qualified for a bowl. And after last weekend’s bungled finish against Minnesota, players and coaches are eager to make amends. The next quest begins Saturday.
“In our world, there is a lot of football to play, a lot of things we can accomplish,” Hoosiers coach Kevin Wilson said. “Two weeks in a row we played a pretty good team, got them into the fourth quarter, haven’t been able to get over the hump. We’re getting close. We’re in those games and our deal is we’ve got to keep fighting and pushing to knock that thing down.”
The Hoosiers’ next chance comes against Illinois (3-5, 0-4 Big Ten), which looks like it’s stolen Wilson’s playbook.
Both teams throw first. Both offenses score points by the dozens. Both defenses give up more than 32 points per game and both coaches are trying to get their programs bowl-eligible.
The winner on Saturday will end a losing streak — Indiana has lost three straight, Illinois has lost 18 consecutive conference games — and move within two wins of that magical sixth win.
The question, of course, is which team is better positioned: Indiana (3-5, 1-3), seeking a breakthrough November victory, or the Fighting Illini, who are trying to prove they can just win a Big Ten game.
“When we get down there, we’ve got to all be able to step up and have each other’s back and make plays for each other,” Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said, referring to the Illini’s red-zone proficiency. “It might not always be pretty down there, but one way or the other we’ve all got to be able to step up and make plays.”
Meanwhile, Indiana is simply trying to recapture the excitement swirling around the program when the season started — just in time to prove the so-called experts wrong about their postseason hopes.
“We’re at that part of the race where you can keep pushing or stop, and we’ve come too far to stop pushing,” Wilson said. “We’re down to two at home, and we need another good crowd to get some energy in the stands for the guys this week.”
Here are five more things to watch Saturday.
THE REACTION: A win last week would have set up the Hoosiers for what appeared to be a reasonable postseason push. Instead, the fans who stuck around to watch the Hoosiers rally from a 35-13 deficit to take a 39-35 lead only to blow that lead and move back into position to tie or win it, cringed when Minnesota recovered a dropped pass that was ruled a lateral with 25 seconds to go. That kind of loss can linger, but Indiana players and coaches insist it won’t.
THE STREAK: Illinois has lost 18 consecutive Big Ten games since Oct. 8, 2011. Strangely enough, that last victory came, yes, in Bloomington. Like the Hoosiers, Illinois has been through a lot since then — and endured a lot of pain this season. If the Illini want to change course this season, they can’t wait any longer. After facing the Hoosiers, they visit No. 4 Ohio State and Purdue and finish at home against Northwestern. Win three and they’ll go from 18-game skid to a bowl game.
ON THE DEFENSIVE: If this game reflects the way these two defenses have played this season, put your money on the shootout. Illinois and Indiana are allowing a combined 70.3 points per game. The Illini are last in the league in turnovers (seven) and sacks (eight). Hoosiers fans can relate, having endured many years with similar numbers. At least that should make the game entertaining, just not much of a defensive battle.
MORE OFFENSE: Forget the defensive numbers. Indiana’s offense has been almost unstoppable this season. The Hoosiers are averaging 42 points per game and have scored at least 28 points in nine consecutive games, a school record. They also have six straight 300-yard games and are coming off their second game this season with two 100-yard rushers, something they hadn’t done in a Big Ten game since 2003.
RETURN TO ACTION: While the Illini have been proficient on offense, they could get some much needed help if sophomore kick returner V’Angelo Bentley returns this week. He leads the Big Ten and is fourth in the nation in kickoff return (30.8 yards) and scored on a 100-yard return earlier this season but has missed the last two games with an injury. If he’s back, that’s one more problem for Indiana to deal with.