- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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There was a lot to like about Indiana's hiring of Kevin Wilson as head coach in December 2010.
Wilson had established himself as one of the nation's top assistants at Oklahoma, winning the Frank Broyles Award once and finishing as a finalist another time. He coordinated fast and dangerous offenses at Oklahoma and at Northwestern, worked for a top coach in Bob Stoops and had ties to the Big Ten.
There was only one major concern, as I wrote at the time.
Can Wilson fix Indiana's chronic problems on defense?
If he can't, he'll meet the same fate as Bill Lynch, Gerry DiNardo and Cam Cameron, offensive-minded coaches who were fired because they couldn't make Indiana's defense respectable. Cameron had star quarterback Antwaan Randle El for four years and still couldn't make a bowl.
Three years later, the concern remains. In fact, it has been magnified.
As expected, Wilson has made Indiana's offense into a quick-striking, touchdown-scoring machine (last Saturday's stinker at Wisconsin notwithstanding). Indiana is second in the Big Ten in scoring and third in total offense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories.
But the defense is still a major drag. The Hoosiers are in a familiar position: last in the Big Ten in both points allowed and yards allowed, and near the bottom of the FBS in both categories (only New Mexico State allows more yards on average than IU). They surrendered 554 rush yards to Wisconsin last week and have yet to hold an FBS team to fewer than 400 yards this season.
Indiana's last four opponents have racked up 2,612 yards and 191 points.
After Wilson's hiring, I listed Indiana's national rankings in total defense for the previous 11 seasons:
2010: 89th (410.2 ypg)
2009: 88th (401 ypg)
2008: 107th (432.2 ypg)
2007: 71st (403.4 ypg)
2006: 109th (402.3 ypg)
2005: 93rd (417.7 ypg)
2004: 110th (453.2 ypg)
2003: 94th (429.7 ypg)
2002: 101st (428.4 ypg)
2001: 72nd (393.8 ypg)
2000: 112th (457.3 ypg)
There are a few more abysmal additions:
2011: 109th (458.7 ypg)
2012: 103rd (463.5 ypg)
2013 (to date): 122nd (534.8 ypg)
The cycle is repeating itself. So is Indiana's inability to make bowl games. Barring a miracle win this Saturday at No. 3 Ohio State, Indiana will miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive season despite eight home games and an offense that strikes fear throughout most of the Big Ten.
"It's my problem," Wilson said Monday. "It's my fault because I am the head coach. As we're sitting here playing in Year 3, it comes down to [Wilson being] an offensive minded guy, we have five coaches on defense and we trust them to do their job. I'm part of the offensive staff, which a lot of guys are like that.
"But when you're head coach, you're in charge of everything, and we've got to make some strides."
The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz is calling for the firing of Hoosiers defensive coordinator Doug Mallory, writing that a mediocre or even a below-average defense would be enough to get IU to a coveted bowl game. The Hoosiers defense has its own category of bad.
Sure, there's youth, as Indiana starts only one senior (safety Greg Heban). Wilson and his staff didn't inherit much talent from the previous regime. And IU's up-tempo style of offense does few favors for the defense.
But the unit should be better than this. Indiana should be going to a bowl this season.
Defensive recruiting seemingly is on the uptick for the Hoosiers, and Wilson sees some promising signs, like the play of freshman linebacker Clyde Newton, who had a team-high 14 tackles at Wisconsin. Newton had a third-down stop that forced a punt and a touchdown-saving tackle that led to a Badgers field goal.
"As great an effort as I've seen since I've been here," Wilson said of Newton bringing down Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen short of the goal line.
"Our freshmen have been pretty good," Wilson said. "[We're] challenging our older guys to give us their best these two weeks, because I see some young guys gaining on it. The older guys haven't been bad, but we're asking those guys to dig a little deeper."
It's scary to think what Ohio State will do to Indiana's defense on Saturday, and Wilson will have to dig deeper to sort out the defense before the start of the 2014 season. He said Monday he'll examine the attitude and culture of the unit. Although he has backed Mallory so far, he'll likely have to look at the staff, too.
"It should get better, it needs to get better, and it's my job to make sure it's got to get better," Wilson said.
Indiana needs to make defense a priority. It's why I thought Dave Doeren, then the Wisconsin defensive coordinator, would be a good fit during IU's last coaching search.
The Wilson hire didn't bother me, and I understand that programs like Indiana, which need to boost fan support, gravitate toward coaches with exciting offenses.
But wins really excite the fan base, and until Indiana's defense approaches basic Big Ten standards, there won't be enough of them.
2dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy