- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The pieces were in place this fall for Indiana to continue its momentum after a bowl breakthrough in 2007.
All-Big Ten quarterback Kellen Lewis returned to the offense after a spring suspension. National sacks leader Greg Middleton anchored a promising defensive front. Perhaps most importantly, a favorable schedule featured eight games at Memorial Stadium, where construction in the north end served as a symbol for a program on the rise.
Instead, Indiana returned to an all-too familiar spot, the Big Ten basement. After a 2-0 start, the Hoosiers dropped nine of their final 10 games to finish with their worst record since 2003.
Injuries played a major part in the downfall, as Indiana was hit on both sides of the ball and at key positions. Lewis struggled to stay healthy for long stretches and the coaches began rotating him and backup Ben Chappell at quarterback. The secondary was depleted and the offensive line struggled to stay unified. Head coach Bill Lynch acknowledged he couldn't remember so many injuries afflicting a team in one season.
Health and depth were major problems, but the Hoosiers also failed to make strides in key areas.
Lewis struggled without a dominant receiver (James Hardy), and the offense ranked 10th in the league in scoring (20.5 ppg). The defense once again produced a sack specialist in Jammie Kirlew (10.5 sacks), but the league's worst unit against the pass couldn't limit explosion plays. Indiana allowed 34 points or more in eight of its final 10 games.
Offensive MVP -- Running back Marcus Thigpen
Thigpen quietly turned in a very solid senior season after struggling to cement himself as Indiana's featured back. He led Indiana with 631 rushing yards and seven touchdowns and had an impressive 6.7 yards-per-carry average. Thigpen continued to show his track-star speed on special teams and finished the year ranked fourth in the league in all-purpose yards (143.2 ypg).
Defensive MVP -- Defensive end Jammie Kirlew
Middleton's production fell off sharply this fall, but Kirlew picked up the slack on the other side of the defensive line. He ranked second in the Big Ten in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (19.5), earning first-team all-conference honors from the media. Kirlew led the Big Ten in tackles for a defensive lineman (74) and finished second on Indiana's team tackles chart. Linebacker Matt Mayberry also deserves a mention here.
Turning point -- Sept. 20 vs. Ball State
Things really went south for Indiana after Nate Davis, MiQuale Lewis and the Cardinals visited Bloomington. Ball State exposed defensive deficiencies that would plague Indiana all season, racking up 463 yards in a 42-20 win. Indiana's offense showed flashes, as it did for much of the fall, but struggled to produce points. The loss triggered a five-game slide for the Hoosiers.
The Hoosiers return most of their core for 2009, but they have to sort out issues at quarterback, running back and several other spots. If both Middleton and Kirlew return for their senior seasons, Indiana's defensive front should be solid. But the Hoosiers must build greater depth throughout their roster to survive injuries. Despite a vote of confidence from Indiana's new athletic director, Lynch is very much on the hot seat entering next fall.
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