BLOOMINGTON -- The Indiana Hoosiers can't wait. They really can't. Sometimes, when you have much to prove, the worst part is waiting for another football chance.
Just ask safety Mark Murphy.
He's part of Indiana's bend-and-break defense that is tired of hearing about it, tired of proving every Saturday that it remains the Big Ten's worst unit.
“To a certain extent, it does make you more anxious to get back out there,” Murphy said. “We have to be consistent with our play. We have all these ups and downs. It's never that bad. It's never that good. We need to build on that.”
On Saturday free-falling Illinois comes to Memorial Stadium with its 18-game Big Ten losing streak, but that's just a sideshow to the main event:
IU (3-5 overall, 1-3 in the Big Ten) wants to win. It HAS to win to keep its slim bowl hopes alive. It needs three wins in its last four games to become bowl eligible. The Illini (3-5, 0-4) would seem the perfect opponent to snap a three-game losing streak.
The Hoosiers got torched by Minnesota for 42 points last Saturday, which was, for those who love silver linings, a 21-point improvement over their previous game at Michigan. And during most of the second half, the defense played to a dominating level, forcing the Gophers into a series of empty possessions. Murphy played a big role with 12 tackles and his first career forced fumble. On Thursday the informatics major was named to the Capital One Academic All-District V Team for the second straight year.
“There were points during the last game where you could see the defense we can be,” Murphy said, “and there were points where you could see the defense we don't want to be.”
Defensive coordinator Doug Mallory insists that the Hoosiers “are getting closer” even if the numbers such as points allowed (37.8) and total yards allowed (507.5) suggest otherwise.
“When kids give you the kind of effort that we're getting, you have a chance to make strides,” Mallory said. “We've got to continue in all phases.
“I don't think we're that far away. We've been very competitive. The offense has given us a chance to win. We've had a chance in every game we've played. It's frustrating for everyone. We'll get this thing flipped sooner or later.”
Three of IU's top four tacklers are defensive backs -- Murphy, safety Greg Heban and cornerback Tim Bennett.
Yes, that's a problem.
“We need to limit those big plays,” Murphy said. “All it takes is one guy out of his gap to cause a problem. It's about guys making plays within the system. It's about tackling and attitude.”
Like IU, Illinois runs an uptempo spread offense run by veteran quarterback Nate Scheelhaase, who has thrown for 13 touchdowns against seven interceptions.
The Illini have been effective enough to score 32 points on defensive-minded Wisconsin. Not even No. 4 Ohio State could do that. Last Saturday, they lost a 24-17 overtime heartbreaker at Penn State, which caused coach Tim Beckman to push the positives that the Illini, like the Hoosiers, can make a bowl game with a strong finish. He said his team has “improved by leaps and bounds.”
Still, the odds favor the Hoosiers. They are 10-point favorites, and if they also were 10-point favorites against Minnesota, well, nobody wants to dwell on the past.
“At the end of the day, you move forward,” Murphy said.