BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -Three games, three wins. The Indiana Hoosiers couldn't have scripted a more impressive start or a more fitting tribute to their late coach, Terry Hoeppner.
``The guys have done a good job of moving forward and turned it the other way,'' quarterback Kellen Lewis said Tuesday, referring to Hoeppner's death from cancer in June. ``We said, 'Let's finish what he started and that is to play 13.' So we've used it as motivation, not as an excuse.''
It's not as if the Hoosiers' second 3-0 start since 1995 was a complete surprise.
They've already beaten mistake-prone Indiana State and two Mid-American Conference programs in Western Michigan and Akron. Most counted those as wins long ago. The schedule starts getting tougher now.
Indiana opens Big Ten play Saturday against Illinois (2-1), a rising program that's won two straight and has one of the conference's most versatile quarterbacks in Juice Williams.
What has raised hopes in Bloomington isn't merely that the Hoosiers are winning games they should, but how they are winning - with a balance and toughness Hoeppner sought.
Indiana leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks seventh nationally at 258.7 yards per game, more than twice last year's average of 113.8. It is fifth in the conference in pass offense, averaging 219 yards per game and has thrown only three interceptions and had just two sacks.
Defensively, the Hoosiers already have 17 sacks - three more than last year's 12-game total - and have limited opponents to 65.3 yards rushing per game, seventh best in the country. They also own a plus-six advantage in turnover margin.
Sure the competition has been sketchy, but considering the team's emotionally challenging offseason, it's a good sign the Hoosiers haven't stumbled.
Just last year, after Northwestern coach Randy Walker died of an apparent heart attack, the Wildcats lost early to New Hampshire, and went on to have a 4-8 season.
Indiana has not played in a bowl game since 1993 - the longest current drought in the Big Ten.
Hoeppner's replacement, longtime friend Bill Lynch, has relied on his calm, businesslike demeanor to help keep the Hoosiers focused on their ultimate goal - playing 13 games.
Athletic director Rick Greenspan couldn't be happier.
``I can't envision anything better than three wins in three games,'' Greenspan said. ``I thought throughout the summer we were in very capable hands with Bill because of things most people didn't see. He's conducted press conferences before and been a coordinator and dealt with academic and athletic issues. I think all of that has helped this team.''
But now they must finish the job.
Since 1967, Indiana has opened nine seasons at 3-0. Five times they were rewarded with bowl trips.
For the last two, however, poor Big Ten seasons sent them home. Indiana lost seven of eight conference games in 2005, Hoeppner's first season, and wound up 4-7. In 1994, a four-game Big Ten losing streak ruined their postseason hopes.
The difference this year may be the team's mind-set.
``We know the nonconference games really mean nothing,'' Lewis said. ``You can win them all, but you've still got to win in the conference if you want to go to a bowl game.''
Hoeppner couldn't have said it any more succinctly, and the Indiana players know it.
``You can't expect anybody to come out and lay down,'' Lewis said. ``So we just have to come out and do our thing and keep playing well.''

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