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Indiana hopes culture change will lead to better results on defense

CHICAGO -- It was no surprise when Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson began his Big Ten media days session by talking about his offense.

Wilson is an offense-first guy. Always has been. He's awfully good at it, too. He rightly bragged about how his Hoosiers led the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed and fewest turnovers committed in 2015 despite running the most plays. Wilson didn't even mention that his team also scored the most points and piled up the most total yards and passing yards.

"We've got one side of the ball that's hit out of the park pretty good," he said.

The problem, of course, is that the other side of the ball continues to strike out with the bases loaded. Indiana was last in the Big Ten in defense again last season, an annual problem that has caused Wilson to hire his third defensive coordinator in six years.

It's not unusual for an offensive-minded coach to see a team excel at his area of expertise, or for a defensive-leaning one to do the same. Wilson understands his own shortcomings. While he works closely with Indiana's quarterbacks and has a major say in calling plays, he has five defensive assistants on his nine-man staff. The majority of programs have five assistants on offense and four on defense.

Yet the extra manpower hasn't helped, and Wilson suggests part of the reason has been leadership.

"I need somebody to get that defensive culture right," he said. "We've created a very competitive, very solid offensive culture. It's not just because we have good players but because players buy into the culture. We need that kind of culture on defense. We've had some good players and good coaches there, but I don't think we've ever all been on the same page."

Wilson hopes he's found the right guy in Tom Allen. The Hoosiers haven't played a game with him as defensive coordinator yet, but Wilson said Allen "has a really nice means of connecting with the staff and getting them and the players to buy in." In fact, Wilson said that when he interviewed Allen for the job, he spent three hours grilling Allen on how to get players to believe, how to correct mistakes and hold people accountable. It wasn't until the very end of the interview that Wilson thought to ask, "Hey, what type of scheme do you want to run?"

Players got a glimpse of Allen's new culture early on. On the first day of spring practice, Allen told linebacker Marcus Oliver, arguably the most talented player on defense, that he was just waiting for Oliver to make the slightest error with his technique.

"As soon as I did, he used me as an example," Oliver said. "He wanted to show everybody that nobody’s too good to not do everything right all the time. He told me I needed to hold everybody to the same standard that I hold myself."

During each meeting this summer, Allen made the team take a quiz on defensive principles. Players have to write down their answers on paper.

"Then we'd take what we'd learn out to our player practices three times a week," Oliver said. "Now, here at the end of summer, everybody knows what they’re doing. We're playing fast and with confidence. It's great to see."

Allen is also bringing some innovation. He'll run a 4-2-5 defense, one he learned while an assistant at Ole Miss and then took to South Florida as defensive boss for the Bulls. The Hoosiers will be the only Big Ten program to use that scheme, which TCU also runs, as its base defense.

"We could be running multiple things on one play, and you don’t know what it looks like because everything looks the same," Oliver said. "It’s tough to pick up and read for an offense, and I think that’s going to help a lot."

Doing something a little different, as Indiana does now with its up-tempo offense, could be the right move for a program that's not going to recruit the same kind of defensive talent as upper-tier Big Ten teams. The Hoosiers went 6-7 last season but lost five games by one possession. That included overtime defeats to Michigan and Duke, and a seven-point loss against Ohio State in which they had the ball inside the Buckeyes' 10-yard line in the final moments. What would the season have looked like with even a slightly more competent defense?

Wilson and the Hoosiers would love to find out.

"We're going to get it done this year," Oliver said. "No ifs, ands or buts. It's going to happen."