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November 2, 2012

Hoosier Hysteria could play out on gridiron

MORE: Mind of Mike | Rankings of Yore

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

As the losingest program in the history of Football Bowl Subdivision, dealing with expectations is something new to the Indiana football program.

Already with its best recruiting class in the Rivals.com era and a visible path to the conference championship game entering November, the excitement in Bloomington is growing.

Second-year head coach Kevin Wilson is managing the buzz by pulling back on the reins.

"We have only won one Big Ten game so far," he said. "So I don't think we need to get the buggy out ahead of the horse.

"Right now we need to work hard and have daily improvement and then weekly improvement to become a winning program. The more wins you get, the more exposure you get and I understand that.

"That will be good exposure for us, getting games on the Big Ten network and ESPN and attention from Rivals, all of it. We just need to have hundreds of days of improvement to make up for a hundred tough years."

A first step on the road to legitimacy can be taken this year.

Thanks to a down year in the conference as well as sanctions against the historically strong schools, the Hoosiers might change their mantra from "Play 13" to "Play 14" by claiming a spot in the Big Ten championship game.

That could lead to only the 10th bowl game appearance in 122 years of football.

Matt Weaver covers Indiana football and recruiting for Peegs.com and says that this season has inspired hope that Wilson was the right hire.

"I know that there is not a lot of stock being put in moral victories, but right now this team is playing close against teams it used to get blown out against," Weaver said. "This is a young team that is coming together and I think off the field, the fans are starting to have faith that the Wilson is the right man for the job.

"The team is just 3-5 right now but it (has) lost four of those games by one score and it is doing it without (quarterback) Tre Roberson. The team hasn't folded and it is building some excitement."

Indiana is averaging the third-most points in the conference behind Nebraska and Ohio State. The high-octane offense that Wilson brought with him from Oklahoma is producing the most passing yards in the conference, as well as the second-most total yards per game and the second-most first downs.

The Hoosiers are accomplishing this with seven starters on offense being freshman or sophomores.

HOOPS HELPS
Kevin Wilson is coaching football at a basketball school and he knows it.

Seeing basketball coach Tom Crean build a team from a roster of two walk-on players into the preseason No. 1 team in just five years has been an inspiration for Wilson.

"Our tradition in basketball helps," Wilson said. "Coach Crean is our biggest ally right now. Our basketball team (is) some of our biggest fans."

Peegs.com football recruiting analyst Matt Weaver said that the two work hand-in-hand.

"Bringing recruits to a hoops game in December is a major selling point for the football program," he said. "Seeing 17,000 fans in Assembly Hall and showing those kids that this school wants to support a winner is something to build on."

Wilson agreed.

"We have only won one Big Ten game, so I don't think it is fair to compare us to the basketball program," he said, "but we are moving in the right direction. The basketball program is something we walk beside and not compete against or measure ourselves against."

Weaver thinks that the pairing can help elevate the school to new heights.

"It will always be a basketball school," he said, "but I think there are enough people who want to make it more of a football school and I think it can happen."

Playing young talent is a philosophy that Wilson embraces.

"You get your best players on the field," he said. "We believe that is the way to get better and right now our best players are our young players."

Indiana will graduate just three starters this year, one on offense and two on defense. It will be infusing the defense with more talent next year.

Since 2002, when Rivals.com first began tracking recruiting classes, Indiana has only signed one four-star player -- linebacker Zack Shaw from Coshocton (Ohio) High in the class of 2011.

It already has three four-star commits for 2013 and is in a strong position to land two more.

Four-star defensive back Antonio Allen from Indianapolis (Ind.) Ben Davis was the first to make his pledge, switching his commitment from Ole Miss in August.

Allen then went to work recruiting others.

The way that Wilson has gone about landing these players has been fairly simple according to Allen: He tells the truth.

"They weren't lying about the program," Allen told Rivals.com. "They said they have to improve some more and last year was bad coaching."

Allen's head coach at Ben Davis, Mike Kirshner, said that Wilson is a culture changer.

"I know Kevin Wilson is trying to change the mentality down there," he told Rivals.com. "What I think (Antonio) brings to them is a physical mentality."

Allen's work has been a big plus for the Hoosiers, Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said.

"Just landing one guy is not going to make a difference," he said. "Allen has worked behind the scenes to have others follow him. Getting that first guy to stand up and say he wants to change the culture is big, but having him help to land others has been the biggest thing."

Allen may have landed a defensive backfield partner in Rashard Fant from Fairburn (Ga.) Our Lady of Mercy.

Farrell said that the combo could pay major dividends.

"The Fant commitment may have been even bigger than that of Allen," he said. "Allen is a Midwest kid and more in the natural recruiting area. Going into Georgia, into SEC country, and getting a player like Fant who had offers from Florida State, among others, is huge. It makes more kids believe that something good is happening up there."

Between the Allen and Fant commitments, Indiana also got defensive end David Kenney from Indianapolis (Ind.) Pike to verbally commit to the program.

According to Farrell, the program could land a few other prime players on the defensive line as Rivals250 members Darius Latham from Indianapolis (Ind.) North Central could commit as early as this weekend. Current Clemson soft verbal Elijah Daniel of Avon (Ind.) High may also be swayed to join the class.

If all five sign with the program -- and others join -- Farrell believes this could be one of the best recruiting stories of the year.

"Getting five four-star players to Indiana would be among the best low-profile stories in the history of our rankings," he said. "I don't mean to downplay what is happening, and low-profile isn't an insult, but that is still a relatively small number when we get to National Signing Day and start talking about USC, Alabama; the Top 5. However, the fact anyone would even be talking about Indiana on Signing Day, and we will be, is a story in itself."

Wilson said that moral victories in recruiting are not the goal.

"Making the list is one thing and competing to get them is one thing, but getting guys to come here is the goal," he said. "We are not in the market to get every five-star out there but we are competing for recruits."

While Indiana is generally not a talent-rich state, Wilson believes that his foundation needs to be in keeping the best players in his state.

"Every school is different," he said, "but we are a state school and philosophically a state school should recruit its own backyard. As a state school, we want to be accessible and we want to showcase our strengths. We have great academics, our support staff is top notch, our nutritionist and our facilities are all very attractive to players but it has to start at home."

If Daniel switches his commitment and Latham choices Indiana, it will give the Hoosiers five of the top 10 players in the state. That number would equal the cumulative total of Top 10 players from the state that have chosen Indiana from the last four classes.

With three months to go before Signing Day, this is far from a finished story, but Farrell thinks that this class could be the start of something good for the program.

"Wilson has brought some swagger with him from Oklahoma and it shows with what they are doing," he said. "The underdog role and underdog mentality is working and the team is competitive in losses and competing for recruits. It may be the right place and right time with what the rest of the conference is doing but Indiana is taking advantage. That is something that it hasn't done before."



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