CHICAGO --- The much-maligned Indiana football defense was, unsurprisingly, a primary topic of conversation Wednesday at the 2013 Big Ten football Media Days.
The focus of those conversations centered around how much that unit can improve after an unimpressive 2012 campaign, and lend a hand to a potent offense.
Though the record-setting offense has defensive coordinators sweating over how to prepare for another lethal aerial assault, senior wide receiver Kofi Hughes didn’t act as though his unit was immune to criticism. All facets of IU’s game must improve to win more games, he said.
Four of IU’s eight losses in 2012 came by four points or fewer, and the offense is responsible for not winning close games, too.
“I think it has a lot to do with the offense,” Hughes said. “A lot of people like to talk about the defense being… the weaker part of our team, but we had so many yards and we left so plays out there, and yet we weren’t putting up the right amount of points.”
The Hoosier offense ranked second in the Big Ten in yards per game (442) and fourth in points per game (30.8), which set single-season school records.
But Indiana converted on just 37 percent of its third down plays, which ranked eighth in the conference. IU head coach Kevin Wilson didn’t see that rate as particularly efficient, and succinctly summed up his thoughts on his offense’s gaudy numbers: the offense should be scoring more given the yards it gains.
“We gotta go from stats to points because what we need is to be a football team that wins games, for a change,” he said.
The Hoosiers’ break-neck pace on offense meant that if a drive stalled — which it often did, considering the third down conversion rate — IU would sometimes only hold the ball for one or two minutes at a time, taxing the defense.
IU ranked last in the Big Ten in time of possession at 26:30 per game.
Hughes wasn’t concerned about the lack of ball control, saying the no-huddle attack was simply the way the offense played, but was particularly troubled by the Hoosiers’ redzone woes. Only 67 percent of Indian’s trips to the redzone resulted in a touchdown in 2012.
He said mastering red zone plays is of particular focus this offseason, as is offensive consistency. Indiana’s points often came in bunches in 2012, and the unit would sometimes come alive or disappear on a half-by-half basis.
“I think as an offense we weren’t very consistent at all last year,” said Hughes, who finished third on the team with 639 receiving yards. “There are times where we make five, six really good plays and then we get down to the redzone and it’s just like four plays and we don’t even get a field goal, and it’s just like, ‘What the heck?’
“That consistency of course is what we’re working on and what we’re gonna try to really fix that.”
To be sure, the defense left something to be desired. It wasn’t as though Wilson was going to sugarcoat his thoughts on a unit that allowed the most points and yards per game in the Big Ten last season.
“We have to make significant strides defensively,” he said. “Quite honestly, it’s been embarrassing about how we played in our first two years.”
For the first time in years, the Hoosiers might finally have the right personnel to shore up their defense. Wilson sounded upbeat about his incoming freshman, 15 of which are on the defensive side of the ball.
That group includes three four-star recruits, including defensive end David Kenney, defensive tackle Darius Latham and defensive back Antonio Allen.
“My inclination says you’ll probably see some of those guys on the field,” Wilson said. “Might be some growing pains, but we’ll be growing with guys that are faster and more talented. That’s exciting for me.”
Regardless of which defensive members of the 2013 class actually make an impact on the field this season, senior defensive back Greg Heban said the unit must be better against the run and must create more turnovers.
He was dead on: Indiana allowed the most rushing yards in the conference by a wide margin (231.3 per game) and forced the fewest turnovers (13) while ranking ninth in turnover margin.
On one occasion, the defense did show the ability to shut down an opponent when it counted most. Against Iowa on Nov. 3, 2012, IU blanked the Hawkeyes for two straight quarters and allowed just seven points over the final three in a 24-21 win at Memorial Stadium.
Heban hopes that game serves as a blueprint for 2013.
“That kind of sparked us a little bit and kind of showed us that our defense has the capability of being a great defense as long as we’re giving 100 percent commitment every play the whole game,” said Heban, who led the team with three interceptions and tied for the lead in pass breakups with eight. “As long as we can continue to do that throughout the whole season, I think our defense can improve a lot.”
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