- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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At 3:07 p.m. ET last Saturday, Indiana beat Illinois to record its first Big Ten victory in 701 days.
It qualified as a fairly big deal.
But it became an even bigger deal three and a half hours later, when Wisconsin fell to Michigan State in overtime. All of a sudden, Indiana found itself in the thick of the race to represent the Leaders Division at the Big Ten title game. Ohio State and Penn State are both ineligible, and both Purdue and Illinois are out of the picture. If the Hoosiers win this week against Iowa, they would set up a potential play-in game Nov. 10 against Wisconsin in Bloomington.
Talk about jumping from Point A to Point I -- as in, Indianapolis.
While no Big Ten campus is located closer to Lucas Oil Stadium than Indiana's (49 miles), no Big Ten program must travel further on the road to respectability than IU, which has won one or zero Big Ten games in eight of the past 10 seasons. This is a team that failed to beat an FBS opponent in 2011.
So you can forgive Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and his players for not getting too wrapped up in the title game talk.
"We finally did have a scoreboard go our way Saturday," Wilson said. "We still have a lot of things we can clean up, and we addressed that with those guys first thing Monday. We have a long way to go in building our team, and we've had very short success, very small success, so I don't think we’re strong enough to look at the big picture.
"We're just trying to keep it very small and very simple."
If you're looking for progress, you can find it with IU. Despite a 3-5 record, the Hoosiers have held a second-half lead in six of their eight games. They've been within one score in their other two contests (Ohio State and Northwestern). Look at where IU stacks up statistically in the national rankings in 2012 vs. 2011, and you'll see sizable gains across the board.
Not convinced? Check out what co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler had to say following the Illinois win, a game in which Indiana allowed 17 points and racked up 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
"That was our worst game we played all year on defense," Ekeler told ESPN.com. "I felt like we were a step slow. We weren't getting off blocks. I'm not taking anything away from Illinois, but I feel like we were just running in mud. We left a lot out there."
Keep in mind Indiana recorded season highs in both sacks and tackles for loss against the Illini. The Hoosiers had surrendered an average of 39.8 points in the five games heading into last Saturday's.
"I felt we weren't very physical," Ekeler continued. "We had way too many loafs. One's too many, but we didn’t play even close to our ability, and that's frustrating. You've got to earn it every week, and I just feel like we didn't earn it last week."
Whether it's a motivational ploy or a reflection of his true belief, Ekeler's statements make it clear the standards are being raised for Indiana, and particularly for a defense that has been the Big Ten's single worst unit for more than a decade.
"After the game, I felt like we'd played really well," Hoosiers defensive back Greg Heban told ESPN.com. "But coming in and watching the film Monday, we kind of agreed with [Ekeler]. Small things like missed assignments that can hurt us, that maybe didn’t hurt us during the game but could have.
"One thing it says about our program is we can go out there and not play to the best of our ability and still win. That's how far we've come."
Indiana's defense is, in many ways, the best barometer for program. The Hoosiers have put up points under offensive-minded coaches before, just like they are with Wilson. But the defense hasn't turned a corner.
There's hope this season as Ekeler sees improved depth and a changing culture. Indiana has two clear defensive leaders and standouts in Heban and senior defensive tackle Adam Replogle (52 tackles, 7 TFLs, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles). Each has been named the team's defensive player of the week four times this season. Indiana already has more sacks (18) than it had all of last season (20), and as many tackles for loss (60) as it had in 2011.
"All our kids have played their tails off," Ekeler said. "They're up here all the time, more so than any other place I’ve ever been. These kids are invested."
Heban also sees an uptick in enthusiasm throughout the team.
"Last year, we felt we didn't have anyone's respect, so we got down on ourselves," he said. "This year, we know we're capable. We feel confident in ourselves."
Wilson has made "Win Today" the program's motto. Although a unique Big Ten season and an especially unique situation in the Leaders Division leaves the door open for a breakthrough, Indiana still must show it can win consecutive Big Ten games -- something it hasn't done since the 2007 season, the last time the Hoosiers went bowling.
Indiana aims for its first conference home win since 2009 on Saturday against Iowa.
"If you're good, you can do it back-to-back weeks," Wilson said. "... To build our team, to play up to our capabilities, to build a winning program, we've got to keep pushing to get better. We're not near as good as we’re capable of being. We're not near as good as you need to be to be a consistent winning program."
But they're getting a little bit closer.
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