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A weekend for relevance?

Fred Glass is arming himself in the fight to fill seats at Memorial Stadium for what many believe to be Indiana’s most significant home football game in 20 years. With a high-powered t-shirt launcher.

As part of what Glass termed a “guerrilla marketing” campaign, Indiana’s director of athletics — flanked at various times by cheerleaders, pep band members and members of his marketing staff — undertook two separate attendance-related endeavors Thursday afternoon, in an effort to drive attendance for this weekend’s game against Wisconsin.

Should Indiana win Saturday, then the Hoosiers, quite improbably and due to circumstances beyond their control around the Leaders Division, move into pole position to land in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis next month. Kevin Wilson’s program is suddenly surging, having won back-to-back games in Big Ten play for the first time in five years.

Yet bad weather, Indiana’s fall break and the notorious indifference with which IU fans, students in particular, treat the football program all conspired to drive attendance down at the Hoosiers’ last two home games, a three-point loss to Ohio State and a three-point win against Iowa. Announced attendance totals exceeded 40,000 last weekend, but the return of “the parabola,” a joke poking fun at the empty seats at either end of the east stands at Memorial Stadium, spoke volumes about general campus awareness of IU’s sudden relevance nationally.

So Glass spent Thursday afternoon involved in awareness campaigns.

Initially, the third-year AD, along with some of the pep band and a few cheerleaders, set up shop with an inflatable football player and plenty of candy along the sidewalks running down between Woodburn Hall and the Indiana Memorial Union.

It’s a high-traffic area, and 2:15 p.m. is a popular time to get out of class. Some football players wander by. Running back Matt Perez grabs a piece of candy. Former volleyball player and IU Athletics marketing intern Mary Chaudoin is wearing a yellow hardhat with the IU logo on it and shouting into a microphone. Glass encourages a passer by to come out to the football game. Without looking at Glass, the young man says he will be there.

“I’m not sure he’s telling me the truth,” Glass deadpans.

IU Director of Athletic Fred Glass (center, white shirt) took to campus Thursday to try and raise awareness and attendance for Saturday's game.

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This it the reality of IU football, the wall over which it must climb. On a campus of 40,000-plus students, Indiana sometimes struggles to get even one quarter of that number into Memorial Stadium on game days. The student body, often maligned for its lack of engagement but probably not an unfair barometer of the Indiana fanbase at large, makes little room in its collective conscience for a program that’s been to one bowl game in the last 19 years.

Glass has, in his nearly three years in office on 17th Street, sought to break down that wall, essentially electing to throw his cap over it.

He has given a seven-year contract to the only football coach he has hired, a man who was a career (if accomplished) offensive coordinator before he arrived in Bloomington. Glass has invested in financially large-scale improvements, from a multimillion-dollar scoreboard behind the south end zone to a sweeping face-lift of the concourses to, this year, a $600,000 artificial-turf practice field.

Glass has, in essence, taken the surplus gifted him by the Big Ten Network and tried to buy football relevance. It’s an approach that, while overly simplistic, makes sense, given that an examination of the most profitable athletic departments nationally can usually allow the examiner to draw a straight line between football success and a stronger bottom line.

It’s also working.

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At this time last year, Wilson’s Indiana program had no rudder. Week 10 brought a 34-20 loss in Columbus, Ohio, to an equally reeling Ohio State program (albeit for different reasons), a defeat that, by comparison, seemed encouraging. Indiana wasn’t limping into its bye week — it was being dragged there.

Freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld (pictured above) and sophomore Cameron Coffman have rotated almost at random since taking over for injured starter Tre Roberson. Together, the pair have helped build the Big Ten's best passing attack, nine games into the season.

In Year No. 2, nearly everything but the record turned around, and then the record did too.

Never mind the boost in wins from one over 12 games to four in nine, Indiana’s average margin of defeat in its losses has fallen nearly two full touchdowns. It seems like a strange thing to brag about, but consider that Indiana, a program accustomed to suffering heavy losses in Big Ten play, has lost its three conference games by a combined 22 points. That three-game total is less than half the deficit by which Indiana lost to each Wisconsin and Michigan State last season (52 points apiece).

Indiana has cycled quarterbacks, though this time through necessity, after original starter Tre Roberson broke his leg in the season’s second week. Cam Coffman and Nate Sudfeld have rotated almost at random, but both have had their moments of excellence in leading a passing offense than goes for nearly 300 yards per game, is first in the Big Ten and rarely turns the ball over. The quarterback rotation Wilson says was unintended has persevered.

“We don't make as big a deal about the starting lineup, unless you really separate yourself,” Wilson said this week. “It's not a controversy. It better not be. All I tell them that as a quarterback, you have to be a good team leader, and that's 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day, and you need to be a great teammate.”

The defense is also better, having allowed just 31 points in its last eight quarters. A unit dragged through a mud pit filled with tacks last season is now first in the Big Ten in tackles for loss, third in sacks and part of an effort that’s moved Indiana to fourth in the conference in turnover margin. Indiana has its weaknesses, but on that side of the ball, it is approaching respectability.

“After we played Northwestern, all the questions were asked,” co-defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler said, referring to Indiana’s 700-plus-yards-allowed performance in the Chicago suburbs. “I said this: ‘I promise you we’re closer than anybody knows. We’re a lot closer than you think.’

“We’ve made strides. It may not show up in the statistics, but the biggest stride we’ve made — our kids are tough. They play their tails off. And that’s who they are.”

In a backward way, Ekeler hit the bull’s eye with that comment — Indiana fights now. It is a consistently competitive Big Ten team.

Larry Black Jr. (pictured above) and his fellow senior defensive tackles have built a strong defensive line for IU, which has in turn cued improvement across the entire defense.

This is something new. Even in its last bowl-worthy season (2007), Indiana lost conference games by 13, 25 and 30 points, and those Hoosiers probably needed a last-minute victory over rival Purdue, after surrendering a three-touchdown lead, to make a bowl at all.

This year, Indiana has achieved competitiveness in the nation’s oldest conference with just one senior starting on offense and two starting on defense. Of Indiana’s 24 listed starters on this week’s two-deep, including punter and kicker, 16 are freshmen and sophomores (including both players listed at two undecided positions defensively).

This weekend, the unlikely present and the promising future will walk hand-in-hand out of Indiana’s locker room, hoping to prove themselves much closer together than anyone realizes.

Anyone, in this case, includes the foundation of Indiana’s own fanbase.

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So here is Glass, two-time IU graduate, former chief of staff to the governor of Indiana, firing t-shirts into a crowd of students, driving his personal golf cart up and down Greek row, making his pitch to sororities and fraternities to eschew their afternoon plans post-tailgate and come to a game he likens to IU basketball’s win against then-No. 1 Kentucky last winter.

As the moderate warmth offered by the afternoon sun fades, Glass, Chaudoin and Andrew Rosner, IU Athletics’ director of business development, crawl up North Jordan to the extension, stopping at select houses with a gift, and a message.

Wilson has signed personalized footballs for sororities Alpha Chi Omega, Zeta Tau Alpha, Alpha Gamma Delta and Chi Omega, and fraternities Sigma Nu, Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta, Alpha Epsilon Pi and Phi Gamma Delta.

Glass delivers those footballs with his sales pitch. To fraternities, it’s to skip the nap and come to the game, because it might well become a moment they remember forever as part of their college experience. To sororities, it’s the same, with the added bonus that sorority women are often rather successful at swaying fraternity men into doing what they want.

So will this game be what Glass is selling? That’s been perhaps the most intriguing question of the week among Big Ten pundits and fans.

On one hand, the Badgers are stout defensively, good against the run and the pass. They are, in keeping with tradition, blessed with excellent size and skill along both lines. Running back Montee Ball was a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago. He’s the Big Ten’s all-time leader in touchdowns, and Wilson thinks James White, his back-up, is perhaps even more explosive.

There’s also the matter of the average margin of victory in this series over the last two years — 59 points.

But perhaps that works to Indiana’s advantage. This appears to be the most meaningful Big Ten game IU has played since at least 1993. Wisconsin will start Curt Phillips, a senior who has never been a No. 1 quarterback before, hasn’t thrown an official pass all year (he threw once, on a play negated by a penalty) and has just 12 attempts to his name in his career. Wisconsin still technically has outs if it loses Saturday, but for Indiana, the Big Ten race is over with a defeat. The Hoosiers also happen to be playing really good football at the moment.

Will Wisconsin be as mentally prepared for this game as Indiana? Can the Hoosiers match the visitors’ physicality on both sides of the ball? Whose offense, in the end, will be more effective?

Above all, though, what does it say of Indiana football that, on Nov. 9, these are topics of conversation? No, Indiana would not have this opportunity without the calamity at Ohio State and the tragedy at Penn State, but reality must be taken for what it is. It certainly will be on Saturday.

After defeating Iowa 24-21 last weekend at home, Indiana’s players were quick to point out that, at 4-5 and 2-3 in the Big Ten, they hadn’t really accomplished anything special yet. If nothing else though, they’ve given themselves the opportunity to on Saturday.

So Glass is willing to go to whatever lengths to get those empty seats filled, to bend the edges of the parabola out. He will spend millions of dollars trying to buy football success the likes of which Indiana hasn’t seen since Bill Mallory led the program (if it ever has at all), just like he will go door-to-door in the cold, practicing the athletic director’s version of retail politics.

Near the end of the hour during which the football pep rally, as it were, is set up outside of Woodburn, a girl walks by, making eye contact with Glass, and thus getting his quick, enthusiastic sales pitch: “Hey, come to the football game Saturday!”

The girl treats Glass to the same rather indifferent stare he got from the young man with the weak promise of attendance, saying nothing as she walks by him and deeper into campus.

“I don’t think she’s coming,” Glass says, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone of voice that’s both amusing and bluntly straightforward. He turns his head back around, sets his eyes on the next person walking by and sticks out his hand.

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