Indiana went 1-7 in Big Ten play last season, a mark that seems all too familiar for the Cream and Crimson.
But a closer look shows that it wasn't your standard 1-7, if there is such a thing. Indiana held fourth-quarter leads against Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern, only to see each slip away. It jumped out to a 10-0 lead at Penn State before allowing 24 unanswered points in a 31-20 loss. It twice closed to within three points of Wisconsin in the fourth quarter of a Nov. 7 game, only to fall 31-28.
Hoosiers players and coaches know they were close in 2009. They don't need to be reminded of it.
And if you choose to rehash the past, they'll likely drop an F-bomb or two.
"As a whole team, the offseason theme was finish," said co-defensive coordinator/secondary coach Joe Palcic. "We have to learn to finish games."
The message especially resonates with Palcic's defenders, who were on the field for all those lost leads last season. The Hoosiers led Michigan 33-29 with five minutes left before the Wolverines marched downfield and scored on a 26-yard touchdown strike. Indiana dominated Iowa for three quarters, picking off quarterback Ricky Stanzi five times, but Stanzi caught fire in the fourth quarter, tossing touchdown passes of 92 and 66 yards on consecutive plays against a shorthanded Hoosiers secondary.
A week later, IU surged out to a 28-3 lead against Northwestern, but the Wildcats fought back and ultimately marched downfield for the game-winning field goal.
"That’s three games right there that the defense could be more consistent and learn how to finish," Palcic said. "And not only not giving up the big play, but let's make a play to win it in those situations."
Indiana's offense has the same mind-set after a season with some adequate yardage production, especially through the air, but not the points to go along with it.
The Hoosiers had the Big Ten's No. 3 passer in quarterback Ben Chappell and two of the league's top six receivers in Tandon Doss (2nd, 80.2 ypg) and Damarlo Belcher (6th, 64.2 ypg). They also had a running back in Darius Willis with breakaway ability.
But Indiana still finished 10th in the league in red zone offense, scoring on just 34 of 44 chances and reaching the end zone on only 22 of those opportunities. Not surprisingly, the red zone was a major focal point for the unit this spring.
"Just minor mistakes here and there," offensive coordinator Matt Canada explained. "We have to correct those issues and make plays when we’re given an opportunity. Just finish. Finish every drive. It’s a bottom-line business, and we have to score more points."
Canada also identifies third-down efficiency as an area that must be upgraded in 2010. Indiana tied for seventh in the league in third-down conversions last fall (39.1 percent), and the biggest problems, according to Canada, came on third-and-short situations.
The Hoosiers hope Willis and others can produce a consistent rushing attack, which was a chief goal of the pistol formation but hasn't truly come to fruition. While the run game remains a question mark, Indiana has more than enough weapons to be better in the red zone. Belcher is a big target at 6-foot-5, and Doss (6-3), Terrance Turner (6-3) and Duwyce Wilson all boast good size.
"We feel like there's plenty of weapons and plenty of things we can do in the red zone and anywhere out there, with all the kids we have at the skill positions, " Canada said. "It’s a matter of our guys understanding that it’s hard to score, it’s hard to move the football against anybody. And when you get it down there, you get an opportunity, you have to score touchdowns.
"We're bringing a real awareness to our team that it's what we have to do."