BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The Indiana Hoosiers spent most of the last decade-plus winning shootouts.
After a major offseason defensive overhaul, coach Kevin Wilson finally got the results he wanted and the Hoosiers have their first back-to-back bowl berths in a quarter century.
"Defenses win championships, you hear that all the time," linebacker Marcus Oliver said after Saturday’s 26-24 victory gave Indiana that elusive sixth victory to become bowl-eligible. "We play with that chip on our shoulder, and we play with that mindset that we have to win the game every game."
The improved play explains why the Hoosiers (6-6, 4-5 Big Ten) managed to overcome five turnovers in a win at Rutgers and four turnovers Saturday against rival Purdue , games that in previous seasons may have been lost causes.
But the revamped defense also proved it could hold up against some of the nation’s top teams.
In a loss at No. 2 Ohio State, Indiana allowed 18 first downs and 383 total yards. The next week, at home, No. 10 Nebraska gained 360 yards in its 27-22 victory. Even No. 4 Michigan’s usually potent offense gained only 284 yards in a 20-10 victory on a snowy day in Ann Arbor.
And the improvements are evident in almost every measurable area.
From 2005-15, the Hoosiers yielded 34.1 points per game. This year, it was down to 27.3. In 2015, Indiana was at or near the bottom in almost every major defensive category.
Though they’re not yet near the top of the conference in the major statistical categories, the progression under new defensive coordinator Tom Allen has been impressive.
"It’s better," Wilson said. "I think we’re really encouraged but we’re not satisfied with where it is. I know Coach Allen’s comment (Saturday) was what it will take defensively to win the game and we were able to do that. It’s a sign, again, we are a more complete team because of them."
The good news is that many of this year’s starters are expected to return to school next season, which could make Indiana even better on defense. So will it be good enough for the program to take its next logical step — winning a bowl game for the first time since beating Baylor 24-0 in the 1991 Copper Bowl?
Indiana’s only other bowl wins came in the 1979 Holiday Bowl and the 1988 Liberty Bowl.
They nearly ended the drought a year ago before falling 44-41 in overtime to Duke when Griffin Oakes’ tying field goal attempt was ruled no good after it appeared to sail over the top of the goal post.
Now everyone in Bloomington seems to believe that the defense can win — regardless of where or who the Hoosiers play next month.
"We rode them all season," receiver Mitchell Paige said. "Coach Allen did a heck of a job and those guys really bought in and were flying around. They carried us all season."