BLOOMINGTON -- It's not up to Stephen Houston. He understands that. He's a senior touchdown machine in a backup Indiana running back role.
Or is he?
According to team wisdom, the Hoosiers (2-1) don't have a true tailback starter, although Tevin Coleman gets the first crack each game. He's set to start Saturday night against Missouri (2-0).
Houston got most of the first cracks during his first two years in Bloomington and produced 1,551 rushing yards, a 5.0-yard-per-carry average and 20 touchdowns.
Then it changed.
Credit Coleman's big-play ability and IU coach Kevin Wilson's mandate to improve the overall running game. Houston says he's better because of it.
“The competition has helped a lot. I'm not starting, but I'm still striving to play harder.”
After three games, Coleman has rushed for 332 yards and five touchdowns. He averages 8.1 yards a carry. Houston has 194 yards and averages 6.9 yards a carry.
“Tevin is a great competitor,” Houston says. “When we practice, if he makes a play, I try to make two. Then he has to make three. Then I have to make four. It's making the challenge harder for both of us. It makes us better players and teammates.
“When he makes a play, I'm like, 'I see you. Now it's my turn.' If you're selfish, you get mad, but you can't get mad at a player that's doing right.”
Last Saturday against Bowling Green, they did a lot right. The 6-foot, 227-pound Houston rushed for 155 yards and averaged 11.9 yards a carry. The 6-1, 204-pound Coleman rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns. It was the first time two IU two running backs had surpassed 100 yards in the same game in a decade.
“Every week I talk to Tevin and say, let's do this together,” Houston says. “Maybe he runs for 200 yards and I have five touchdowns. He got us there. I punched it in. It's a combination, like thunder and lightning.”
Who is who?
“I'm thunder,” Houston says, “and he's lightning.”
Coach Wilson wants more. So does running backs coach DeLand McCullough. Complacency and satisfaction are the last things Indiana needs in its quest to find postseason utopia.
“Stephen can play better,” Wilson says. “The same with Tevin. Our running game still has to be better. We had nine negative rushing plays (against Bowling Green), and that's way too many.”
Houston gets it.
“I put that game behind me. That was last week. This is a new week. I'm starting with zero yards. I have to play hard and fast. Play physical. Then my yards will come.”
Houston's yards have always come, but Wilson wanted more and got it from Coleman. Last year as a true freshman Coleman rushed for 225 yards and a touchdown. He also averaged 23.6 yards a kickoff return, including a 96-yard return for a touchdown.
“Even though Tevin goes out there first,” Houston says, “you hear Coach Wilson and Coach McCullough say there's not a true starter. The No. 1 guy can have a good day, but the backup can have a better day. We're complementary to each other.”
The early knock on Houston was that he didn't practice hard. Houston thought he did. Wilson set him straight.
“The first year I was like, this is the hardest practice ever," Houston says. "The next year it was harder. This year, it blows those first two years out of the water.
“My first year I was gassed in two plays. The second year it was like, four plays. Now I can go six, eight, 10 plays in a drive. I might be a little winded, but I have enough gas in the tank to make that crucial block or get that crucial first down.”
So do all the running backs.
“We know what we're doing,” Houston says. “We know how to practice and play better. Practicing harder will make our play easier. Our first year we weren't playing physical and fast. Then we stepped it up. Now we've stepped it up another notch. Once we reach the standard, the standard gets higher.”
That standard includes D'Angelo Roberts and Laray Smith, who have combined for 23 yards on 10 carries so far.
“It's a taxing position,” Wilson says. “There is a lot of wear and tear. We need D'Angelo and Laray to come along because I think you need more than two (running backs).”
IU spent much of August working on boosting the running game. Wilson's message: “Run fast, come off the ball, be decisive.”
“You've got to go from Point A to Point B as fast as you can," Wilson says. "The Good Lord gave (you speed), run as fast as you can. You don't do a lot of dancing. It's one cut and you go.”
Houston loves that message. Credit the thunder in him.