BLOOMINGTON – The Indiana football team had something cooking in its first possession Saturday against Illinois.
The Hoosiers moved the ball to the Illini 29 and were in great position to pull ahead early. But the drive came to an abrupt end when running back Marcus Thigpen got hit by Illinois defensive lineman Will Davis and fumbled. Kevin Mitchell recovered the ball for the Illini.
That was the first of three fumbles for the Hoosiers, who went on to lose 27-14. IU knows the number just won’t do as it prepares for an opportunistic Iowa defense.
“We can’t dwell on it. People make mistakes,” junior wide receiver James Hardy said Tuesday. “Some of the best players ever fumble the ball. We just have to take that under consideration. We are still an explosive offense, we just had a bad day.
“It just wasn’t our day. From top to bottom, each position didn’t play well.”
Two of fumbles occurred in Illinois territory.
“The things we think we need to do in this league to win we didn’t do well enough. It starts with turning the ball over and particularly where we turn the ball over,” IU coach Bill Lynch said.
“When you turn it over in the red zone, it’s going to come back to get you. And the turnover in the second half set up their last score, and that last score really changed the way the game had to be played. You preach it over and over again, but it’s something you cannot do.”
The Hoosiers had lost just one fumble coming into the game.
“You just emphasize it. You can drill each group. Everyone on offense is responsible for the ball,” Lynch said. “In terms of individuals and putting the ball on the ground, It’s a point of emphasis, work technique. We drill it and emphasize it.”
The Hoosiers also had one pass intercepted. This week, they face an Iowa squad that is tied for first in the Big Ten in turnover margin (with IU at plus 5).
The Hawkeyes have recovered three fumbles and have five interceptions. Iowa and Indiana rank 16th nationally in turnover margin.
“It’s learned. It’s technique. It’s habit. It’s fundamentals,” Lynch said. “You are going to have some knocked out because of big hits. Sometimes a guy makes a big hit at the right place and the ball pops out. Other times it’s fundamentals, whether it’s ball carriage or protecting it or getting two hands on the ball.”
Hardy had a rare miscue with a fumble at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“I had a big fumble. I had never fumbled before,” he said. “After looking back on it, it was just careless; not holding onto the ball going into traffic with two arms.
“We had a couple that could have gotten us going with momentum. It’s little things that we usually don’t do. We’re all still young and learning. We will make mistakes. We’ll turn it into a positive and move on.”
Hardy hopes to duplicate some of the success he’s had against the Hawkeyes. In 2005, he had 12 catches for 203 yards and one touchdown. Last year, the Elmhurst graduate caught eight passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns in Indiana’s stunning 31-28 win.
“The past couple of years our offensive coordinator has done a wonderful job moving me around and finding holes for me,” Hardy said. “It gives me the opportunity to go in and show my talents against the Iowa defense.”