Hoosiers defense keeping bowl-game dreams alive

Indiana Rutgers Football

Indiana cornerback Rashard Fant (16) is first in the country with 16 passes defended and 15 pass breakups.

Mel Evans / AP

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana is one win away from becoming bowl eligible and its defense has played a big part in getting the Hoosiers to this point.

Once known for scoring in bunches and giving up points just as quickly, these Hoosiers are establishing themselves as more unyielding. Defense saved Saturday's 33-27 win at Rutgers with 11 three-and-out stops, including on seven consecutive possessions. Indiana also allowed only one third-down conversion in 16 attempts.

"I just knew they weren't doing much, they weren't getting many yards," junior safety Chase Dutra said Monday.

The Scarlet Knights weren't as productive as the point total suggests. Rutgers scored one touchdown on a long pass, another on defense and the final TD off a short field after one of four Indiana turnovers. Take away five plays that gained 188 yards and the Hoosiers allowed just 163 total yards on 65 plays (2.6 yards per play).

Players say the difference is new defensive coordinator Tom Allen, who demanded change from the first day he arrived in the offseason. Players are expected to attack each day, let alone each play.

"I don't believe we've ever held anybody to zero on third downs, and the one they converted was for the touchdown on the goal line," Allen said. "To be able to be that dominant in that situation, I'm really, really proud of our players."

Indiana (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) is in position to clinch a bowl bid for the second consecutive year for the first time since 1990-91 if it can upset No. 12 Penn State (7-2, 5-1), which visits Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The Nittany Lions are 18-1 against Indiana, the lone exception a Hoosiers home victory in 2013.

"It's going to take our best efforts, it's going to take our best week, it's a strong challenge and a great team we're playing," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. "We're going to need to have a great week to have a chance."

Indiana has amassed 1,217 total yards in two weeks, so Wilson's reputation for fielding productive offenses is still intact. But turnovers have been an issue. Junior quarterback Richard Lagow has 15 touchdown passes with 13 interceptions, and the team has lost four of 10 fumbles, including one returned for a touchdown Saturday.

That's why defense has been key. Allen's unit is allowing 119.4 fewer yards per game, down to 390.1, the second-largest improvement in the nation. Junior linebacker Tegray Scales has 85 tackles, including 64 solo stops, which ranks second in the country. Junior cornerback Rashard Fant is first in the country with 16 passes defended and 15 pass breakups.

Indiana has 10 sacks and 28 tackles for loss in the last three games.

"It's nice to finally get a little recognition," Dutra said.

Freshman cornerback A'shon Riggins said Allen has "flipped" the defensive mindset.

"He gets mad when the other team scores at the end of the game even when the game is out of reach," Riggins said. "He has that mentality that, `We don't want them to get into the end zone no matter what the situation is.'"

Notes: The struggles for junior kicker Griffin Oakes continue in what has been a nightmarish season for the 2015 Big Ten Kicker of the Year. Oakes had two field goals blocked at Rutgers, which makes nine misses in 20 attempts this season. He was also wide right on an extra point and had another PAT botched by the holder. Wilson isn't replacing him, adding: "I think our kickers are getting a little psychotic. We've got to work through the mental demon, but I don't think I need to pound the kids' legs because there's only so many swings in that leg."