Hoosiers ready for big game with Wisconsin
Indiana is suddenly playing meaningful late-season games.
The Hoosiers head into Saturday's home game against Wisconsin with, wait for it, title hopes and bowl possibilities on the table. School officials are expecting a big crowd, too, maybe the biggest all season.
The crash-course lesson for the Hoosiers in how to deal with their biggest game in five years? Change nothing.
''These guys have stayed very focused on the practice field and when game time rolls around, they'll go out and compete,'' offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said.
Clearly, the Hoosiers (4-5, 2-3 Big Ten) have more fight in them this season.
Four of the losses were by a combined 10 points. They gave undefeated Ohio State one of its biggest scares of the season, and the Hoosiers have rebounded from an 11-game Big Ten losing streak to win their last two - their first two-game league winning streak since 2007.
It has put Indiana in position to accomplish things many thought would be impossible less than a month ago.
A win over Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) would:
- Give Indiana its first three-game Big Ten winning streak since a four-game streak in October 1993.
- Move the Hoosiers within a victory of becoming bowl eligible
- Hand the Hoosiers the inside track to representing the Leaders Division in next month's Big Ten title game.
Ready or not, here come the Hoosiers.
''We worry about what we do. We're a long way from being a good football team but we're getting better every day,'' said coach Kevin Wilson, who had lots of experience in big games when he was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma. ''Kids have bought into it. We're getting better every day and it's fun.''
About the only thing that hasn't gone Indiana's way recently was this week's television assignment. The game will be broadcast at noon on the Big Ten Network, not the network exposure the team would love to get.
''We always play in bad TV slots and we don't get much coverage,'' Wilson said. ''We're going to keep plugging along and doing what we're doing.''
There's plenty at stake for the Badgers this weekend, too.
Because the top two Leaders Division teams, Ohio State and Penn State, are ineligible to play in the league title game, Wisconsin can clinch its second straight spot in the league title game this weekend.
Perhaps no other Big Ten team has played more big games than Wisconsin recently.
A win Saturday would put the Badgers within one championship game of reaching their third consecutive Rose Bowl and they've already been to Pasadena, Calif., five times since 1994 - the most of any conference team. They've regularly appeared on prime-time television and been part of the national championship discussion.
So Saturday's game is, well, just another one for the Badgers, who close out the conference season against the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions.
''I told our kids, `The schedule was made three years ago and for whatever reason these games were laid out in this order. Truth be told, we couldn't ask for any better situation for us to be in,''' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.
Things certainly could be worse.
In a wacky Big Ten season that has left two prominent programs with postseason bans, potential title contender Purdue is still winless in conference play and a sub-.500 team such as Indiana is still in control of its own destiny.
Perhaps Saturday's game is fitting given that things haven't exactly gone according to script in Madison, either.
Two weeks ago, in a rare home loss for the Badgers, Michigan State limited Wisconsin's vaunted ground game to just 19 yards.
That's something the Badgers intend to change at Indiana. Montee Ball has rushed for 1,028 yards and 13 touchdowns and needs five TDs to break Travis Prentice's national career record (78). In three previous games against the Hoosiers, he's averaged 141 yards, though the stakes have never been this high.
''Yeah, it's weird,'' he said of this week's matchup. ''Indiana is most definitely doing some great things this year and we've got to make sure we go in with our minds right.''
Despite having a bye last week, Bielema hasn't said whether he'll start Curt Phillips or Danny O'Brien at quarterback in place of the injured Joel Stave. O'Brien started three games earlier this season. Phillips has had surgery three ACL surgeries, and made his first appearance since the 2009 season finale against Illinois on Oct. 6.
''Curt on his feet, he's capable of making some big plays running the football. Danny does a great job throwing the ball deep and making some big plays in the air,'' Ball said. ''Whoever stats, we'll make sure we're right behind him.''
With so much at stake for an Indiana program that has had just one winning season since 1995, the questions is how will they handle the pressure?
''It's a big game, but we're not treating it any bigger than any other game,'' Indiana safety Mark Murphy said. ''We're still trying to build a winning program here.''