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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...INDIANA HOOSIERS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We’re still waiting for the sequel to the real version of Hoosiers. And no, we’re not talking about the movie starring Gene Hackman, Milan High and Bobby Plump, or any of the storied championship teams for Indiana basketball under Branch McCracken and Bob Knight. But surprising as it might be to Erin Andrews and friends, who might have a hard time believing there were ever any storylines other than Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, or even recall the conference when it actually consisted of ten teams, or to those guys like Dave Revsine who anchor in the studio for the Big Ten Network, the best Hoosiers story we can recall came on the gridiron in 1967. And 44 years later, we’re still waiting for the encore.

We mention all of this because IU’s stunning football accomplishments in 1967, which were capped by the school’s only Rose Bowl visit, seemed no more likely prior to that momentous campaign than they do this season, as the Hoosiers begin yet another rebuilding job under new HC Kevin Wilson, who arrives in Bloomington from an eventful stint as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. He inherits a team that won five games for the deposed Bill Lynch a year ago, which is a lot better than the one win IU managed in 1966 in what was John Pont’s (right) second year as head coach, a year before the miracle season. And if Wilson needs a motivational tape to fire up his team, all he has to do is show highlights of Pont’s 1967 masterpiece. We’ll get to this year’s Hoosiers, but for a moment allow us to digress and remind all of those 30-somethings working the sidelines for ESPN that perhaps the best-ever tale in Big Ten football annals was authored not in Ann Arbor or Columbus, but rather in Bloomington.

In our 54 years publishing THE GOLD SHEET, we are hard-pressed to recall a team enduring a wild thrill ride like the ‘67 Hoosiers, who walked a tightrope almost every week but somehow kept managing to survive. Pont, a product of the “Cradle of Coaches” at Miami-Ohio where he starred as a player and excelled as a coach between 1956-62, had arrived at IU from a successful tour of duty at Yale but had little success with his first pair of Hoosier teams in 1965-66, which won a combined three games. Prospects did not seem much better for ‘67 with a gaggle of untested and wild-eyed sophomores thrust into key roles, including key offensive components QB Harry Gonso (left), RB John Isenbarger (beaten out for the QB job by Gonso but immediately switched to HB by Pont), and WR Jade Butcher. Pont, looking to fortify the defense, moved all-conference OT Doug Crusan (who would later star in the same position for the Miami Dolphins during their title years in the early ‘70s) to the DL, where he would join another future pro, DE Cal Snowden, in a stop unit that also boasted of another future NFL regular, LB Jim Sniadecki (49ers). Crusan’s presence helped the defense turn into a stubborn platoon that kept IU in every game until the offense somehow found a way to score the winning points, which usually came at the death of each game. Those white-knuckle finishes, coming in rapid-fire succession, remain imbedded in the memories of all who saw that ‘67 team in action; indeed, in chats with legendary Bloomington Herald-Times sports columnist Bob Hammel, a hoops historian of repute and also Bob Knight’s biographer, the topic can’t help but swing from basketball to those ‘67 football Hoosiers, who to this day remain one of the revered Hammel’s all-time favorite sports subjects.

Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins might have summed up the ‘67 Cardiac Kids best when he referred to their games as “some of the most self-torturing climaxes since radio serials.” IU had rallied from a 10-0 deficit in its opener to squeeze past Kentucky 12-10 on a deflected 23-yard TD pass from Gonso to WR Al Gage deep in the 4th quarter. The Hoosiers nipped Kansas at the wire the next week, 18-15, on a late FG by PK Dave Kornowa, better known as a DB but thrust into emergency duty when regular kicker Don Warner had an injured toe. The Hoosiers won at Illinois 20-7 despite gaining only 189 yards of offense and not wrapping up the game until the final moments after forcing a turnover deep in Illini territory, a familiar tune in a tightly-contested battle highlighted by two Hoosier defensive TDs. IU almost gave a game away vs. a wretched Iowa team when Isenbarger failed on an ill-advised fake-punt try in his territory and the Hoosiers clinging to a narrow 14-10 edge; the Hawkeyes subsequently scored on an Ed Podolak TD to take a 17-14 lead deep in the 4th Q. But IU rallied back to score the winning TD on a Gonso-to-Butcher pass with 53 seconds to play, after Gonso’s fake field goal run had set up the deciding score in a 21-17 final. The Hoosiers then squandered all of a 20-0 lead the next week vs. Michigan, with another failed Isenbarger fake punt (which he again executed without the approval of Pont, who fumed afterward) setting up the tying score, but IU rallied by driving 85 yards in the last two minutes, with Isenbarger redeeming himself by scoring the winning TD in another pulsating 27-20 final. Even winless Wisconsin took the Hoosiers to the limit, rallying from a 14-3 deficit and cutting the lead to 14-9 on a TD run by QB John Boyajian with 3:36 to play, then threatening to score the winning TD by driving to the Hoosier 10-yard-line in the waning moments, the IU defense “looking as organized as a panty raid,” according to SI’s Jenkins. Boyajian, however, overthrew and open receiver in the end zone on the final play and IU hung on. More late-game heroics were required the next week at Michigan State, where Isenbarger’s TD with 2:50 to play gave the Hoosiers a 14-13 win, and, more incredibly, an 8-0 record and fifth ranking in the nation.

The clock seemed to strike midnight in the penultimate game at Minnesota, however, when the Gophers capitalized on a series of Hoosier miscues in the 4th Q to blow open a close game and win going away by a 33-7 count. At that point Minnesota seemed to have the inside track to the Rose Bowl, as IU, now dropped to 14th in the polls, would have to beat third-ranked and 14-point favorite Purdue, led by All-Americans QB Mike Phipps & RB Leroy Keyes, for the Old Oaken Bucket to force a 3-way deadlock atop the Big Ten and qualify for Pasadena via tiebreakers. Wouldn’t you know, however, that IU would save perhaps its greatest theatrics for the final act, jumping to a 19-7 halftime edge thanks to a couple of long runs by sr. FB Terry Cole (right; a future Baltimore Colt), then weathering a late Boilermaker rally that cut the deficit to 19-14 and a last-ditch Riveter drive that reached the Hoosier 1-yard line before S Mike Baughman recovered Perry Williams’ fumble. And with that, IU qualified for its first and only Rose Bowl to date, although the fairy tale season did not end on a winning note, instead losing 14-3 to eventual national champ USC, a result even more distasteful in retrospect thanks to O.J. Simpson’s key role for the Trojans. Still, the memories of ‘67 shine brightly in Bloomington.

So much for that trip down memory lane. We suspect that new coach Wilson (and IU fans) would be thrilled with any kind of a bowl invitation in his first year on the job. Wilson is already up to a few tricks, outfitting the Hoosiers in new uniforms almost clone-like of his former Sooners team, not to mention installing an uptempo, no-huddle attack similar to the ones used by Sam Bradford and Landry Jones to post huge passing numbers in Norman the past few years. The resemblance to OU will likely end there, however, as Wilson is looking for his own Harry Gonso at QB after longtime IU starter Ben Chappell exited Bloomington along with the Lynch regime. A pair of redshirt sophs, Dusty Kiel (whose uncle Blair was a onetime Notre Dame QB, and whose bother Gunner, a touted prep QB, will attend IU in 2012), and Edward Wright-Baker, will continue their battle for the starting job into fall camp. Sources say Kiel might have had the slight edge in spring, but Wilson has not been in any hurry to name a starter, recalling that none other than Sam Bradford wasn’t named first-stringer until 10 days before OU's 2007 season began, either. Some observers believe there’s a chance Wilson might opt for a 2-QB rotation at the outset of the campaign; stay tuned for further developments.

It is almost irrelevant that thirteen starters return from 2010, as Wilson opened up every job to competition in spring work. Still, some key holdovers return, specifically offensive skill weapons Damarlo Belcher (right), a Plaxico Burress-sized wideout who led the Big Ten in catches LY (78) and seriously considered testing the NFL Draft waters before returning for his sr. season, and jr. Darius Willis, a carnival tilt-a-whirl-like RB threat who has had problems staying healthy, and whose knee injury early last season took the zip out of the IU infantry, which ended up ranked a poor 112th nationally at a mere 100 ypg. Willis was still on the mend in spring and had an off-field incident (domestic assault) to worry about as well, which will keep him out of the opener vs. Ball State at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium on September 3, but should be ready to roll thereafter. If he’s not, speedy soph Nick Turner, who gained over 7 ypc in limited work LY, could move into a featured role. Four starters return on an OL that protected Chappell extremely well in 2010 (only 12 sacks) and figures to adapt to the tweaks in pass protection from LY’s Pistol looks, although each save honors candidate jr. C Will Matte will be fighting to maintain first-string status when camp reconvenes in August. Junior PK Mitch Ewald hit 16 of 19 FGs a year ago and has been named to the Lou Groza Award watch list for this fall.

The thought in Big Ten circles is that the offense, like a year ago, should be competent enough to get IU in line for a minor bowl bid. The defense, however, remains another matter. Remember, the Hoosiers allowed 155 points in a three-game stretch to close last season, including an 83-point bomb dropped by Wisconsin. They also couldn’t stop the run in 2010, allowing 5.1 ypc, and managed just 8 picks all year. We have our reservations about the new defensive brain trust, especially co-d.c. Doug Mallory, whose papa Bill is the winningest all-time coach at IU but whose own career has hit several speed bumps the past few years, moved out after a disappointing season as LSU’s d.c. in 2008 and overseeing perhaps the nation’s worst stop unit at New Mexico the past two years. Ex-Nebraska LB coach Mike Ekeler will share d.c. duties with Mallory, and most of spring work was spent on technique and changes in terminology. Improvement along the DL is a must after LY when the Hoosiers were gouged by the run and rarely collapsed the pocket, generating only 15 sacks (ranking 103rd), so we’re not sure that the return of starters DE Darius Johnson and DTs Larry Black, Jr. and Adam Replogle are going to be a plus. The platoon’s top tackler from LY, LB Tyler Replogle, has graduated, and the secondary is almost completely rebuilt, with FS Donnell Jones the only returning starter. Pass defense also needs a serious upgrade after allowing 65% completions and ranking 114th a year ago. Playmakers are wanted.

Summary...Wilson, in his first HC job, will have to get used to losing a lot more than he did at Oklahoma, and time will tell if he should have heeded advice from those who suggested he wait for a better opportunity than IU, a notorious coaching graveyard where no mentor has fashioned a winning record since the war years and Bo McMillin (63-48-11 between 1934-47). Although the Hoosier faithful will not be as demanding as the OU folk, and will settle for a competitive outfit that qualifies for the postseason more often than not and occasionally makes a run at conference honors. Still, Wilson’s first Hoosier team needs to be ready to fly from the get-go with four winnable games (Ball State, Virginia, South Carolina State, and North Texas) out of the chute. That means that one of the new QBs has to hit the ground running, not to mention the defense quickly absorbing the new schemes of coordinators Mallory and Ekeler, of which we have some concerns. The bowl bid might have to wait if the pieces still aren’t fitting by October, when the schedule begins to toughen considerably. And for those few Hoosier fans who still remember, they’re used to not holding their breath as they wait for a sequel to John Pont’s Cardiac Kids from 1967.


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