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Taking a deeper dive into what’s wrong with the Indiana defense

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The Hoosier defense has struggled in Big Ten play after a strong start to the season.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After playing stereotypical Tom Allen defense over the first three weeks of the 2018 campaign, all of the questions about how the Hoosiers would replace eight defensive starters and not lose a beat on that side of the ball went away, and expectations rose to expecting Allen to field another suburb defense in his third year in Bloomington.

However, it has not exactly gone to script for the Hoosier defense over the last four weeks. While husky Marcelino Ball did miss roughly three quarters due to a targeting penalty against Michigan State, and Jacob Robinson missed a little bit of time, the Indiana defense has remained pretty healthy during this tough stretch. So what caused the Hoosiers to go from being so successful on defense in their four wins to reeling in their three losses? The quality of Indiana’s competition increased, which caused the Hoosiers to be unable to hide their biggest weakness on defense: their lack of a four man pass rush.

During Indiana’s three losses, arguably the biggest complaint on the defensive side of the ball has been with the secondary. Too many times opposing receivers have beaten IU defensive backs in one-on-one coverage, and that was especially the case on Saturday against Iowa, as each of Nate Stanley’s first two touchdown passes came with a receiver or tight end beating a Hoosier defender on a 50/50 ball.

As seen in the above highlight reel, the Indiana secondary struggled in one-on-one coverage yet again on Saturday, as it did in Indiana’s other two losses against Michigan State and Ohio State in recent weeks. But what has gone under the radar is how little pressure the Indiana defensive line gets on opposing quarterbacks. Through seven games, the Hoosier D-line has a full six quarterback hurries (three coming from Allen Stallings IV) and just five sacks. Basically, it means that the IU line pressures the quarterback 1.57 times a game.

So what does Tom Allen do to try to counteract the lack of a front four push? Do what any football coach would: send a ton of blitzes. The problem is, Indiana has been atrocious when they have blitzed this season.

Per S&P+, Indiana is 97th in the FBS in blitz success rate at 32.4 percent and is 87th in blitz down sack rate at 7.6 percent. Indiana is also one of the worst teams in the country in S&P+’s sack rates, as IU is 110th out of 129 FBS teams in sack rate (4.2 percent) and is 116th in passing down sack rate (4.1 percent). To compare, last season the Hoosiers led the FBS in passing down sack rate at an incredible 15 percent—yes, IU went from first to tenth to last in college football in just one season.

In Indiana’s three loses, teams have caught on to Allen’s gameplan of sending extra men, and have taken advantage time and time again, such as on this pitch and catch from Brain Lewerke to Felton Davis on September 22.

On that play, Allen sent six Hoosiers at Lewerke, leaving five men in coverage. Instead of waiting for the pressure to get to him, Lewerke recognizes the blitz, takes a quick dropback and fires to his All-conference receiver who is able to beat Andre Brown to the ball to pick up a first down.

The same pattern showed up in the Iowa game this past Saturday, as FIVE of Nate Stanley’s six touchdown passes came against a Hoosier blitz. There’s no reason to believe that this trend won’t continue when Penn State comes to town this weekend, as Trace McSorley is right up with Dwayne Haskins and Stanley as being one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten.

So what does Tom Allen do? He’s really in a lose-lose situation. In an ideal world, Allen could drop seven in coverage and let the front four get to the quarterback and occasionally blitz. But because the defensive line doesn’t create pressure by themselves, then opposing quarterbacks would have all day to throw the ball. However, if Allen does send extra men at the quarterback, opposing teams are taking advantage of one-on-one coverage and burning the Hoosiers on the back end.

Allen’s best hope is to mix up coverages and blitzes to try to keep the opposing team off guard, and his 4-2-5 system can help with that; however, there’s only so much scheming can do in college football, at some point it comes down to can you win the battle in the trenches, and right now, the Hoosiers can’t on the defensive side of the ball in Big Ten play.