BLOOMINGTON | Indiana is tired of getting beaten up.
Two seasons and just five wins into coach Kevin Wilson's tenure, the Hoosiers now seem to understand what it will take to consistently make bowl games and contend for Big Ten titles. They must be big enough and strong enough to make all those critical plays.
"We've still got to come out a lot tougher, we've got to be a lot more physical, so we've got a ways to go with that," safety Greg Heban said. "But physicality wise, offense and defense, we're flying around the football, flying off the ball, so it's definitely great improvement over last year."
That's just what the fan base wants to hear after years of falling short.
But will it be enough to get the Hoosiers back to a bowl game for the second time since 1994? Here are five keys to turning things around:
1. ONE, TWO, THREE QBs: Wilson's toughest decision may be choosing a quarterback. Tre Roberson finished his freshman season as the starter and won the job last season, too. A broken left leg ended Roberson's season after just six quarters. Somehow, Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld, Roberson's replacements, got the Hoosiers into contention for a division title in 2012. This year, all three are back. Roberson is the most mobile of the three. Coffman comes with an NFL pedigree and a penchant for winning, but Sudfeld has looked very good early in practice. Who's the favorite? That's not clear. What is? The innovative Wilson will figure out a way to use all three talented quarterbacks.
2. RUN, RUN, RUN: The Hoosiers have averaged 3.9 yards per carry over each of Wilson's first two seasons and haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2001, when there were 11 regular-season games. That's not good enough. Wilson claims this is the first time he can recall going back-to-back seasons without a 1,000-yard runner — and he doesn't intend to make it three. Fifth-year senior Stephen Houston is back after leading the Hoosiers in rushing in 2011 and 2012. But he will be pushed by impressive 204-pound sophomore Tevin Coleman and perhaps speedy true freshman Laray Smith.
3. ON THE DEFENSIVE: Over the last 11 seasons, Indiana has limited opponents to fewer than 30 points per game only twice. Not surprisingly, one of those seasons (2007) coincided with the Hoosiers' last bowl trip. After giving up 35.2 and 37.3 points over the past two seasons and 163 points in their final three games last year, the Hoosiers know things must change. Wilson is hoping that the added size and speed will make a difference. Having more experience and depth should help, too. The real test won't come until they face Indiana State in the opener on Aug. 29, and then Navy. The Hoosiers also host SEC foe Missouri on Sept. 21 before a Big Ten season that includes trips to Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
4. SIZE MATTERS: When Wilson arrived three years ago, he had one starting offensive lineman who topped 300 pounds. Since then, Wilson has been talking about getting bigger and strong at all positions. This year, the message is being heeded. The average weight for the five starters on this year's preseason depth chart is 299.4 pounds, and Indiana might finally have an offensive line to consistently compete in the rugged Big Ten.
5. OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Despite all of the improvements the Hoosiers made this past offseason, the one that might go the furthest is Wilson's scheduling protocol. He wanted to open the season on a Thursday night so he had a couple of extra days to prepare for Navy's rushing attack. He got it. In fact most of the schedule is favorable. Indiana has eight home games this season, and for the first time in school history will play its first five in Bloomington. Getting off to a fast start is essential if the Hoosiers plan to go bowling.