Hoosiers try to toughen up

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Near the start of every practice this spring, Indiana lines up for what head coach Kevin Wilson calls the "Big Ten period."

For several minutes, the Hoosiers' starting offense -- normally a spread-you-out, up-tempo, pass-heavy attack -- suddenly morphs into a more classic Big Ten look. They will feature two running backs at times, go to multiple-tight-end sets at others and generally do away with all the fancy, modern stuff.

"It's a lot of what you're going to see week in and week out in the conference," defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. "It's kind of the old 'We'll just line up and see if you can stop us.'"

That's not Wilson's preferred way of playing. But while Indiana knows its offense can move the ball effectively out of the spread, that doesn't necessarily help the defense get better. And there's no doubt that the defense has to improve for the Hoosiers to get out of the bottom tier of the league.

"We have to make sure when we practice and in the way we develop our team that it doesn't cause us not to develop the toughness we need and the ability to be physical and tackle," Wilson said. "We're in Year 3 now, and we need to make those strides."

Indiana boasted the Big Ten's best passing offense last season while averaging more than 30 points per game. But the defense didn't progress as hoped, finishing last in the league in points and yards allowed for a second consecutive year as the team went 4-8.

"Our biggest disappointment as a defensive staff is that if we would have played reasonably well on defense, we could have had the program in a bowl," Mallory said. "That's something we want to get fixed."

Mallory and his staff are constantly emphasizing the need to play more physically this spring. The Hoosiers are hitting more during practice -- Tuesday's spirited session was chock-full of collisions -- and devoting more time to one-on-one battles.

The defense showed some much-needed toughness last year during back-to-back victories over Illinois and Iowa. Granted, those were two of the worst offenses in the league, but Indiana tackled well and made some big stops.

After that, though, the floor gave out as the Hoosiers yielded 163 points in their final three games, losing to Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.

"I think because we were inexperienced, guys weren't aware how long the season is," safety Greg Heban said. "We were getting tired, and once you get mentally tired, you lose physicality as a defense. That's something we've got to keep up the whole season."

Wilson hopes the Big Ten period of practice will help instill more of that toughness. Not only for the defense.

While IU was explosive in the passing game last season, its running game was just below average at just 130 yards per week. Wilson pointed out that the top five scoring teams in the country last year -- Louisiana Tech, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M -- all rushed for more than 200 yards per game.

"We will be a better offense when our offensive line and tight ends are tougher, and we run the ball," Wilson said. "When we get that going, our offense will become more balanced and score more points."

The Hoosiers are unlikely to suddenly start using fullbacks and power-I formations. They'll get some of their rushing yardage from their quarterback run game and catching defenses gearing up for the pass. But a better ability to run the ball strongly between the tackles will help them, especially in the red zone, where passing windows shrink.

An offensive line that started two true freshmen and two sophomores last year may not have been ready to play smash-mouth football. That might be changing.

"Last year, I was just learning," said Dan Feeney, who started all 12 games at guard last year as an 18-year-old. "Now that I have a little more experience, I feel like I can bring a little more to [the running game]. We're hitting on every play, but we've got to be even more physical than that. We've got to get downfield and finish blocks so our backs can go for 20-to-30-yard runs instead of just 10-to-15."

And if so, then maybe more of Indiana's practice installments will be considered true Big Ten periods.