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IU football has season on the brink against Illinois


Richard Lagow prepares to throw a pass in the second quarter against Wisconsin on Nov. 4. Lagow played well enough Saturday against Illinois to earn IU its first Big Ten Conference win. Katie Franke Buy Photos

IU football's word of the week is "now."

With three games remaining in the regular season, the word reflects the urgency surrounding the program.

A 3-6 overall record means the Hoosiers need to win-out to automatically secure a third consecutive bowl berth. Matchups at Illinois and Purdue, with a home game against Rutgers sandwiched in between, give IU three winnable contests to make a bowl trip a reality.

"These next three weeks I only want dogs by my side," senior safety Chase Dutra said after last Saturday's game. "If you're not coming in every single day to get better and get better every single day that you're here for the next three weeks, I don't want you to even come into the facility."

It's a task IU has pulled off before.

In 2015, IU won consecutive games at Maryland and Purdue to end the season and reach the postseason. 

But the Hoosiers have backed themselves into a corner this season after blowing fourth-quarter leads against Michigan State and Maryland.

Should the Hoosiers close the season with three wins, it would be a historic feat. IU hasn't finished a regular season with three consecutive conference wins in 71 years. 

"We're up for the challenge," Dutra said. "Things in the Big Ten right now, things aren't going our way, so we just need to bounce back and be ready to compete." 

The challenge begins Saturday at noon in Champaign, Illinois, where IU will play the only other Big Ten school without a conference win this season. Illinois, 2-7 overall and 0-6 in conference play, hasn't won a game in two months.

Illinois Coach Lovie Smith's Fighting Illini teams are a combined 2-13 in conference games over the past two seasons. However, given the conference struggles IU has faced this season, the Hoosiers aren't taking anything for granted.

"Our complete focus is now turned to Illinois," IU Coach Tom Allen said. "Playing our best football this season — that's the objective and what we plan to do."

Allen has said he will lean on his seniors during this time. Players like Dutra, quarterback Richard Lagow and the rest of IU's seniors stood in front of their teammates during a team meeting Sunday afternoon. 

"Want the seniors to look them in the eye and understand what's at stake the last three weeks of the season," Allen said. "Special group of guys here with us, and it's all about people."

Within this senior group, Dutra is having standout performances.

The fifth-year safety set a career-high with 15 tackles in last week's home loss to then-No. 9 Wisconsin.

Others, like Lagow, haven't fared as well. Two crucial fourth-quarter interceptions turned into 14 points for the Badgers last Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

It was Lagow's first start since the Sept. 30 game at Penn State.

"I felt comfortable back there," Lagow said after the game. "As the game went on, there were some plays you wish that you could do over again, but for the most part I felt pretty good."

Lagow will likely start again Saturday while freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey continues to nurse a knee injury from the Maryland game.

Success should be easier to come by for Lagow against an Illinois defense ranked 113th in the country in success rate, an S&P+ Rating that determines whether a play was successful or not. Less than 47 percent of plays are considered successful for the Illini defense.

Additionally, the Hoosiers' defense will look to rebound from consecutive games in which it allowed more than 40 points, something IU has done four times this season.

"The clock continues to tick on the season, and so that happens regardless of what you do," Allen said. "I just think more than anything, it's just a sense of urgency that you have to understand where we are. But I think that can be a good thing." 

Past words of the week for IU have been "fearless," "relentless" and "resilient," and Allen is looking to use "now" to inspire a late-season resurgence in his team.

"That's the sense of urgency that has to be there," Allen said. "Because you know that when the end is near, that creates a brevity of life that we all experience."

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