Football fortunes at the two Big Ten schools from Indiana are flipping.
Indiana was a consensus pick for last place in the Leaders Division. Another ugly season of rebuilding was expected under second-year coach Kevin Wilson, whose first go-round ended 1-11 and 0-8. Former Nebraska assistant Mike Ekeler, who you'll read more about in a moment, is the co-coordinator of the defense.
Meanwhile, Purdue appeared ready to take a big step up.
With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for the Big Ten title game because of NCAA sanctions, the Boilermakers were the trendy pick to win the division.
Purdue entered the season with the most returning starters (19) in the league, some star power on defense, three veteran quarterbacks and a fourth-year coach with a contract extension who proclaimed this his best team yet.
Those are words Danny Hope may come to regret.
The Boilermakers, who rotate onto Nebraska's schedule next season, are 3-5 and 0-4, one of only two teams without a league victory. And the home crowds have been as lackluster as the team's performances.
Now, Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke has weighed in this week with a statement that doesn't give Hope, 19-26 overall, much hope.
Wrote Burke: “Everyone around our football program has high expectations for the 2012 season. ... Currently, our performance has kept us from reaching our goals. ... We need to press forward, converting potential into results.”
Hope isn't helped by the fact that Purdue will have a new president in January — Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Having a new university leader puts heat on the athletic director, which translates into a hot seat for a struggling football coach.
Over at Indiana, the Hoosiers have shown far more promise than expected.
After playing Michigan State to four points, Ohio State to three and Navy to one in October, they broke an 11-game conference losing skid last week with a 31-17 win over Illinois. Amazingly for Indiana (3-5, 1-3), the schedule sets up in November to contend for the Leaders title.
Ekeler, the ex-Husker assistant, wants no part of that talk yet, but likes the growth curve.
“You would be shocked if you were in our locker room,” he said by phone from Bloomington, Ind. “You would think we were undefeated because these kids have a great spirit and love of playing and are up in our offices every night on their own.”
As an example, Ekeler noted that a week ago Tuesday, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Nick Sliger was in the football complex at 10:30 p.m. watching film.
“He came into my office when he got done and we were just talking,” Ekeler said. “He said, 'Coach, we're going to get this thing over the hump.'
“Then he said, 'The only thing that really upsets me is that I don't have two more years here.' Coming from a guy who hasn't been around a lot of success and a guy in the trenches, that tells you the kids are all in.”
Recruits are starting to notice, too. Indiana has oral commitments from four four-star prospects and is headed toward its highest national ranking in 10 years.
“The state of Indiana has a lot of talent, and those kids want to stay around here,” Ekeler said. “We've just got to give them a reason to stay.
“Kids are starting to feel what's going on here, and those who are already here are telling their friends about it. So we've got a chance to put together as good a class as anybody out there.”
IU hoops helps
Ekeler, being from Blair, Neb., is familiar with a school — Nebraska — that has dominant football and struggling men's basketball. At Indiana, it's the opposite. The Hoosiers are preseason No. 1 nationally in hoops.
But IU football does everything it can to leverage the basketball popularity, with the full support of Hoosier coach Tom Crean.
“Coach Crean is an absolute stud,” Ekeler said. “He goes way, way, way out of his way to help us in anyway he can.”
Crean is hardly a football novice. His wife is a sister of NFL head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. Said Ekeler: “Coach Crean is probably as much a football guy as a basketball guy.”
With Wisconsin starting quarterback Joel Stave (broken collarbone) out for the year, coach Bret Bielema is using this week's open date to conduct a competition between junior Danny O'Brien and fifth-year senior Curt Phillips.
O'Brien, a transfer from Maryland, started the first three games but was replaced by Stave at halftime of the Utah State game for ineffective play.
Phillips has had three ACL injuries while at Wisconsin, missing the 2010 and 2011 seasons entirely. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder from Kingsport, Tenn., has become the sentimental favorite on the team to win the job. He has appeared in two games this season with no passing attempts.
“Curt is a tremendous competitor and has great relationship skills with the other players,” Bielema said. “He'll do his best to try to be that guy.”
Here's an odd sidenote on Stave's history with broken collarbones. Doctors had to break his clavicle during birth to deliver him safely. His birth weight was 10 pounds, 5 ounces.
Quote of the week
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald on new NCAA rules that hold head coaches more responsible for all rule violations in their program:
“To any head coach, if you have cause for concern with anybody who is touching your football program, well then you've got problems. We don't hire guys who aren't character people into our program.”
Stat of the week
Indiana is the only FBS team not to have lost a fumble this season. The teams with the most lost fumbles are Nebraska and Memphis with 14.
Bits and pieces
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he expects quarterback Denard Robinson to start Saturday despite his elbow nerve injury. Said Hoke: “It just flares up now and then depending on how he gets hit.” ... Minnesota leading receiver A.J. Barker (30 catches, seven TDs) is doubtful for Saturday with a severe ankle sprain. ... Iowa tailback Mark Weisman (leg) isn't expected to play at Indiana, coach Kirk Ferentz said. ... Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short (leg) is questionable for the Penn State game.
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