Kevin Wilson’s goal upon becoming head coach at Indiana five seasons ago was to build what looked like a Big Ten program both on the field and off.
The Hoosier team itself certainly passed the eye test last season, at least through the eyes of coach Dave Clawson of Wake Forest before and during Indiana’s 31-24 victory over the Deacons at BB&T Field.
“As a coach, when a team comes out of the locker room, you always look at them,” Clawson said. “And I remember Indiana last year, saying, ‘Man they’ve got some good-looking dudes.’
“They eat a lot of corn-fed beef or whatever it is. But those guys, they were a good-looking football team. They were well-developed and they looked like a big-time team, and they played like it last year.’’
Work remains on the field for Wilson, whose Hoosiers made their first bowl trip since 2008 last season only to wind up 6-7 after losing to Duke in overtime in the Pinstripe Bowl. Last season’s star running back, Jordan Howard, is now with the Chicago Bears and his starting quarterback, Nate Sudfeld, is playing for the Washington Redskins.
And although the Hoosiers are 2-0 this season with victories over Florida International (34-13) and Ball State (30-20), they’ve yet to begin a meat-grinder of a Big Ten schedule that includes consecutive games against Michigan State, Ohio State, Nebraska and Northwestern.
But based on recent comments, Wilson feels he still has headway to make with a fan base that, most years, has had little to cheer about until basketball season starts. When Memorial Stadium all but emptied out during the victory over Ball State — while the Cardinals pared a 30-point deficit to 10 with more than three minutes remaining — Wilson couldn’t resist expressing his displeasure.
“We probably played like our fans, and left in the fourth quarter, it looked like,’’ Wilson said. “Those tailgates are still there. If you buy a good enough cooler, stuff will stay cold for you. Let’s ride out the second half. Let’s play ball man.”
On Tuesday, Wilson elaborated.
“Our team’s got to play well,” Wilson said. “I really just want our fans throughout the game to be engaged. What a positive impact they can have on our program.
“We’ve got great people here. Our fans have been good. I just want to kind of (keep) that energy the whole game. So many games in college football come down to the wire, and I just don’t want our guys to take it for granted that, ‘Hey the game’s in the bag, let’s roll on out.’
“So again, we love our people. We’ve got a beautiful stadium. The administration’s put millions of dollars into a great facility. I’d just love this place to get rocking on Saturday.’’
Wilson, a native of Maiden, tackled one of the biggest challenges in college football when he became the Hoosiers’ head coach before the 2011 season. The Hoosiers had enjoyed only one winning season in the previous 16 years, and his predecessor, Bill Lynch, was fired after compiling a 19-30 record (6-16 in Big Ten) in four seasons.
Wilson, through five-plus seasons, is 22-41 overall and 8-32 in conference play. To his defense, he did have to dig out of the hole of a debut season when the Hoosiers finished 1-11 overall and 0-8 in the Big Ten.
His approach to building a team is one he learned while playing in the offensive line for North Carolina from 1980-83.
“They are a very, very physical offensive line,” Clawson said. “They knock people off the ball. They moved the ball against everybody in the Big Ten.
“It’s a well-thought-out offensive scheme. Coach Wilson’s background is as an (offensive) line coach, and you can tell how well-coached that unit is.”
The Hoosiers play an up-tempo offense, which requires special skills from a quarterback. After losing Sudfeld to the NFL, Wilson has turned to Richard Lagow, a redshirt junior who is in his fourth college program. Lagow signed originally with Connecticut but decided not to attend when the Huskies changed coaches. He walked on at Oklahoma State, where he redshirted. Before ever playing, he transferred again.
After one season at Cisco Community College in Texas, he enrolled at Indiana in January 2016 and beat out junior Zander Diamont for the starting job. Through two games, he has completed 35 of 54 passes for 506 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“You see their screen game, you see their quick-hitters,” coach Mike Neu of Ball State said. “They’ve got a quarterback who (was) starting his second game for them, so that’s part of their package.
“They do a good job of mixing it up and trying to get him comfortable and calmed down and just playing the game.”