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Monday, May 27
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

Hoosiers’ O-line finally good enough for Big Ten

This autumn, only leaves are falling in Bloomington. 

But it wasn’t too long ago when the crunch of foliage and the smacks of an IU quarterback hitting the ground were synonymous.

Throughout the Hoosiers’ 2008 season, injuries to the big boys up front forced young, inexperienced linemen into the trenches, and standing behind the offensive line wasn’t fun for IU quarterbacks.

Junior quarterback Ben Chappell and former IU football player Kellen Lewis were sacked 28 times in 2008 – the fourth-most sacks in the Big Ten. Even when the passers weren’t eating turf, intense pressure from opposing defenses forced bad passes and turnovers.

After three games this year, Chappell has been sacked once, the least in the conference. 

The extra time has also allowed the IU quarterback to find open targets, and his completion percentage has risen to 68.5 percent. 

“I need those five guys up there or I’m not going to be very effective,” Chappell said. “If they continue to do a good job protecting me, we’ll be successful.” 

Although the line has visibly improved, senior tackle Rodger Saffold won’t be happy until the line is perfect.

“We don’t want to give up sacks, but that’s still not our goal,” Saffold said. “We don’t want the quarterback touched the entire game.” 

Last season, thanks to an unending rotation of hurt linemen, that goal was an impossible one to reach. 

With misfortune, however, came experience. 

The injuries last year opened the door to young linemen looking for a chance at playing time, and their in-game practice has paved the way for a successful 2009 campaign.

One of such players is sophomore guard Justin Pagan. After being thrown into the fire as a freshman in ’08, he has developed into one of IU’s best offensive lineman, and the numbers show it.

Pagan missed the season opener because of an injury sustained in camp, and the team rushed for only 73 yards. Chappell absorbed his only sack, and the team scored only 19 points against Eastern Kentucky.

Since Pagan’s return to the field, the team is averaging 30.5 points per game and 183.5 yards on the ground. 

Despite the numbers, Pagan sees only one difference between himself and his backup, Marc Damisch.

“My hair,” Pagan said as his frizzled afro blew in the wind, sending thousands of hair strands dancing. 

Usually, it would be worrisome to think about a drop-off in production when the line goes from facing the Mid American Conference to those from the Big Ten, but the Hoosiers have reason to remain optimistic.

Everyday in practice, the offensive line faces All-Big Ten caliber defensive ends in Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton.

To Pagan, however, which conference a defensive lineman hails from is meaningless.

“Everybody comes out and they try their hardest to beat us,” Pagan said. “So there’s not a big difference. Just the name of the school.”

Thanks to the limited turnover, IU coach Bill Lynch said he is impressed with the week-to-week improvement that has come with the line playing together. Going into the Big Ten season, starting against No. 23 Michigan, the line will only need to continue to get better. 

This year, the Wolverines have been world-beaters, offensively, averaging a conference-high 38 points per game. When an offense is that explosive, the best way to beat them is to keep them off the field. 

That’s where the offensive line comes in. 

Protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the running game means an increase in time of possession.

This year, the Hoosiers are averaging almost 32 minutes of possession time per game, but to beat Michigan, they will need to exceed their average. 

And they have shown the ability to do just that so far this year. However, even though the weather is cooling, the competition is only heating up. 

To win in the Big Ten, they’ll need to pick up fallen leaves in their backyard, not quarterbacks.

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