Bowling for a bid: Hoosiers hoping new defense sends them back to postseason

A year ago, Bill Lynch introduced "the pistol" to Indiana football.

This year, it's the 3-4 defense.

The fourth-year coach with a penchant for change believes the latest tweak will help the Hoosiers take advantage of their talent — and get back to being a bowl contender.

"We've got a good football team," Lynch said. "I've done this a long time, and when you do it long enough, you know the difference between a good football team and one that has holes. We've got a bunch of guys who get after it on the field."

Certainly that's something the Hoosiers need after last season's defensive debacle.

Indiana lost eight of its last nine games, including five straight to close the season. Opponents topped 30 points in each of the Hoosiers' last four games, and the result was predictable: Indiana stayed home for the holidays — as it has all but one time since 1994.

So Lynch and his assistants, facing the loss of seven of the team's top eight tacklers and one of the nation's best pass-rushing tandems, thought it best to revamp the defense. They moved receiver-quarterback Mitchell Evans and receiver Matt Ernest to the secondary, and changed the defensive alignment to take advantage of more depth at linebacker and a big group of smallish, quick pass rushers.

"I think it's going to help us out because it will give offenses different looks and more things to worry about," Evans said.

Why might it work?

The Hoosiers (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten) are stacked in the middle with sophomore defensive tackles Larry Black Jr. and Adam Replogle. Black started all 12 games, while Replogle, the only true freshman to play for Indiana last season, started the last 11 games.

Kevin Bush is a 6-foot-3, 252-pound pass rusher, who can play with his hands up or down. Replogle's brother, Tyler, a senior, also returns at linebacker after finishing second on the team with 80 tackles.

And Lynch is hoping he has enough other players to fill the gaps. Injuries limited the playing time of hometown kid Leon Beckum last season, but he's healthy now. Lynch also brought in junior college transfer Jeff Thomas, the nation's No. 4 juco linebacker in 2009.

Plus, the Hoosiers are deeper in the secondary.

Junior college transfers Lenyatta Kiles and Andre Kates join veterans Richard Council and Adrian Burks at cornerback, while former cornerbacks Donnell Jones and Chris Adkins have bulked up and moved to safety. Jones, who looks bigger than his listed weight of 210 pounds, may even get some time as a rover back and give the Hoosiers added flexibility to plug the biggest hole — stopping opponents on third down.

"I think we'll have the ability to do more things in those situations," Lynch said, referring to the Hoosiers' biggest flaw last season.

Fortunately, Lynch has had to do less with the offense.

Quarterback Ben Chappell returns for his second, and final season, as the starter. Sophomore running back Darius Willis, the Hoosiers' leading rusher, has changed his eating habits in an effort to stay healthier this season, and Chappell has a full contingent of receivers back.

Tandon Doss, Damarlo Belcher and Terrance Turner all have experience playing with Chappell and the three receivers have grown up in the system with Chappell. Add tight end Max Dedmond to the mix, and the possibility that Evans isn't finished playing offense, and the Hoosiers could be putting up even more points than the nearly 24 points per game they averaged.

"Watching last year's film, I would say it really came down to making three or four plays a game," Chappell said. "Those teams made the plays and we didn't. You have to have the confidence to make the play and then you have to be strong enough to make it."

And that's where Indiana has to improve after losing left tackle Rodger Saffold in the NFL draft.

The leader is left guard Justin Pagan, who has trimmed down from 332 pounds to 305. Right guard Cody Faulkner, who started 11 games in 2008, returns after an injury-plagued 2009; center Will Matte is back after staring all 12 games as a redshirt freshman; and the Hoosiers are hoping oft-injured tackle James Brewer stays healthy again in 2010 after making 12 starts in 2009.

But that still leaves the biggest spot, left tackle, with a new starter, Andrew McDonald.

"He started two or three times two years ago, because of injuries," Lynch said. "So we look at is as every kid has gotten reps in practice or games and they should get better."

If so, and the new defensive alignment, pays off, well, Lynch may just get the Hoosiers' first bowl bid since 2007.