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Sloppy, sluggish Indiana narrowly avoids Southern Illinois upset bid

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Indiana survives opener against Southern Illinois (2:13)

ESPN analysts Roy Philpott and David Diaz-Infante discuss Indiana's 48-47 grind-it-out victory over Southern Illinois. (2:13)

Indiana didn’t look ready for its opener, even going so far as to buy itself an extra minute of offseason with a delay of game on the opening kickoff.

The Hoosiers had just announced the suspension of nine players shortly before that play, and the combination of their sluggish start and the lack of depth largely made for an ugly debut to open the season for Kevin Wilson’s club.

But eventually a defense playing without four key players started forcing turnovers and getting stops. UAB transfer Jordan Howard asserted his will for the rushing attack and added some toughness for the Hoosiers. And in his return from injury, quarterback Nate Sudfeld delivered some bullets with his arm and was a factor with his legs as well as Indiana eventually woke up and started trading punches.

Indiana still needed to stop a two-point try in the closing seconds to hold on for the 48-47 victory on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, so there are obviously still questions that must be answered. But after flirting with a disastrous loss, the Hoosiers at least found a way to address their issues on the heels of a victory.

What the win means for Indiana: There isn’t much reason for the Hoosiers to feel good about the performance, but it’s the first victory of a march to six needed to return to the postseason. The second-half rally and last-gasp stop also keeps some heat off coach Kevin Wilson, who would have had a hard time explaining away a home loss to an FCS squad no matter how many suspended players were on the sideline. Sudfeld and Howard give Indiana some firepower again on offense, but the defense still has miles to go.

What the loss means for Southern Illinois: The Salukis have no reason to hang their heads, though they did let a golden opportunity to claim a victory over a Big Ten team on the road slip out of their fingers. Southern Illinois quarterback Mark Iannotti was a handful for the Hoosiers both as a rusher and a passer, accounting for five total touchdowns. He never backed down from a challenge, even when the Hoosiers were able to find some defensive momentum. The Salukis are in good hands on offense.

Player of the game: Howard. The Indiana backfield is going to be just fine without Tevin Coleman thanks to one of the best offseason pickups in the Big Ten. The transfer from UAB brought plenty of toughness to the rushing attack, and there’s no question the Hoosiers can ride him as an every-down tailback to complement the passing game after Howard opened up his season with 145 yards and three touchdowns.

How the game was won: Veteran leadership. The Hoosiers were on the ropes early and could have folded in the face of a stiffer-than-expected test. Or with the score tied in a two-minute situation, the pressure could have caused a collapse. But Sudfeld simply wouldn’t allow the Hoosiers to quit, and then his poise allowed them to escape after delivering a clutch third-down conversion and then a gorgeous deep strike to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Without a healthy Sudfeld at the helm, the Hoosiers would likely be in a hole to start the season.