Every Indiana football game is the same, for we are forever stuck in college football purgatory. This is a template, but this one gets revised from Crushing Loss Against Ranked Opponent to Soulbreaking Loss That Pushes Entire Season To The Brink of Failure. I don’t like to be dramatic, and I don’t like to overreact, and I don’t like to blame coaches. An 8-win Indiana season that seemed to be there for the taking a few months prior’s quickly turning into one that could see the Hoosiers at home for the holidays for the first time since 2014.
After a fast start in College Park, Indiana dropped yet another heartbreaker, 42-39 -- this time to a Maryland team that looked to be overmatched heading into the game — and for a decent chunk of the day as well. Indiana led 16-7 early in the 2nd quarter and looked to be pulling away perhaps, when Peyton Ramsey overthrew a wide-open Cole Gest on a would-be touchdown that could’ve put the Hoosiers up by three scores early. That of course didn’t happen. A Haydon Whitehead punt was blocked and returned for a Maryland the very next play, and, well — here we are.
Indiana’s now 0-5 in Big Ten play, despite holding late second-half leads in four of those five games. They’ll need to win three of their final four games to make a bowl and sit two games behind Rutgers in the conference — something S&P+ only gives them around a 33% chance to do. This is bad, this was a bad loss, and I’m writing you from hell.
Here’s three things about another very dumb football game.
A Max Bortenschlager-led offense scored 42 points on Indiana. This is a problem.
We’ve heard all the talk, you’ve seen the stats -- Indiana is a defense-first football team right now. At first glance, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Allen’s genius in 2016 was only supposed to grow into this season, taking the nation’s most returning defensive production into a unit that can be the program’s bellcow. Stats validate that, largely. Indiana’s 20th in the nation in defensive S&P, which is something that would’ve been impossible in eras Cameron or DiNardo or Lynch or Wilson — for the most part.
So, today, consider. The nation’s 87th best offense led by a 3rd-string quarterback named Max Bortenschlager scored 42 points on Indiana. Not all of those points were offensive, of course. Six came on a blocked Indiana punt. Exactly half of Maryland’s points game on drives of 14, 0, and 18 yards. It was still far from a track meet for the Terps, only raking in around 345 yards of total offense. Still, the points came -- and if you’d like to head down a rabbit hole, it gets at just why it’s semi-concerning for a program like Indiana’s to build around defense.
Dominant defenses, moreso than offensive units, often rely heavily on consistently recruiting better talent. Defensive consistency requires big, ginormous, athletic dudes -- and lots of them. Those players are in short supply, and far easier to acquire if the name on the front of your jersey says Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama.
Perhaps that explains part of what we’ve seen in 2017 with Indiana’s defense. For a program of Indiana’s stature, the depth isn’t there. It’s maybe why you’ve seen the Hoosiers wilt in later games, why you’ve seen schemes start successful to only wilt as the games proceed on.
Indiana’s offense is a total hot mess
You can pick your point you’d like to complain about. Peyton Ramsey’s completion numbers look great, but seems to be ineffectual throwing the ball more than 10 yards down the field. There’s little zip on passes, and it limits Indiana’s vertical threats. That would be a problem, but Indiana’s offensive line can’t hold blocks long enough to throw downfield. It leads to a simple scenario: Defenses pack the box, bring routine pressure, and give little respect to Indiana’s ability to get the ball downfield. Such makes a bad rushing attack worse.
Translation: Indiana basically has a quick, intermediate passing game and absolutely nothing else.
You can blame that on players, sure, but there’s little creativity in the scheming or playcalling to offset those weaknesses, either. It’s becoming fairly clear that a Mike DeBord offense will take little in the way of chance, and is largely reliant on whatever individual talent he stumbles into to create meaningful production. There’s not going to be a plug-and-play dynamic offensive system where lesser recruits can be coached-up and wildly productive, as was often the case under Kevin Wilson at Indiana. This, in the long term, should be concerning to you.
Tom Allen’s honeymoon is about over at Indiana
Okay, okay: let’s start with sanity. Tom Allen is nine games into his career as Indiana’s head football coach. He’s likeable. He seems like The Guy. He checks the boxes. He’s yet to complete a full recruiting cycle. His offense has major holes at largely every position but wideout. Still, coming into the season, Indiana was set to be overwhelming favorites in at least 7 games — and favored or nearly favored in an 8th. When your Big Ten schedule features Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, and Illinois — 7 wins isn’t a tall ask. That’s now, pending an upset against Wisconsin, all up in smoke. One more mistake, or stumble, or no-show against a lesser opponent in the final four games and Indiana will miss bowl season. With this defense and schedule, such would be a major, major failure to start the Tom Allen era. And, given the trajectory of other programs, it’s not a failure Indiana football can afford.
Playing in the Big Ten East, Indiana’s margin for mistake is razor thin when it comes to staying out of the cellar. Getting Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan on the schedule every season seems good to supply four losses more often than not. With 9 game conference schedules, that means Indiana’s other regular opponents -- Maryland, Purdue, and Rutgers -- are almost must-wins every season to reach bowl eligibility. Lucky enough for Indiana the last two seasons, those programs have been trash.
Problem? That’s changing.
Jeff Brohm’s turned the Boilers into an early-version of Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers, playing enthralling, fun football whilst still losing to Rutgers. But it seems clear improvement’s coming, and a bowl bid might even come this season. Maryland’s good enough to beat the Hoosiers with a third-string quarterback, and DJ Durkin will match a Top-20 recruiting class with an already nice well of young talent. Chris Ash has quietly already built a Top-35 defense at Rutgers, and there’s been clear improvement year-to-date. Like it or not, each of those programs seem to be ready to take a step forward in 2018.
Here’s a quick list of just some of the defensive players that Tom Allen will lose to graduation: Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, Greg Gooch, Rashard Fant, Nate Hoff, Chase Dutra, Tony Fields, Robert McCray. That’s eight of 11 current starters. Offensively? You can count on Simmie Cobbs likely heading for the NFL, and Ian Thomas will graduate. Griffen Oakes will be on his way out, too.
Sure, sure — it’s Year One. But with the Hoosiers poised to possibly take a step back next season as others step forward, it’s paramount to get to a bowl this season.
Otherwise? It’s hard not to ask yourself — if not now, when?