Season two of the Tom Allen Era in Bloomington is over and unfortunately for Hoosier fans, it was more Friday Night Lights than The Office. On Saturday the Hoosiers lost to their second biggest rival to fall one win short of bowl contention for the second year in a row. Just like the writers strike for Friday Night Lights, there were problems that sunk the season for Indiana, but there are ways they can be fixed ahead of season three.
Fire Mike DeBord
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Indiana’s offense is an issue. Not the personnel per se, but the overall scheme itself. Time and time again the Hoosiers have opted to throw short of the sticks whether it’s bubble screens that end up getting about three yards a pop if you’re lucky, button hooks that give a receiver zero forward momentum, or short outs to the flats, the list goes on. The problem with using these things as the building blocks of your offense is that they limit your big play potential, which is something Indiana really doesn’t need to do. How can IU fix this? Simple. Ask the man that has installed and called the offense over the past two years, Mike DeBord, to skip town.
There’s not a lot of evidence supporting DeBord keeping his job. In 2017 his unit finished as the 98th best offense in the nation per the S&P+ rankings, right behind noted offensive powerhouse Coastal Carolina. In 2018 the Hoosiers had jumped up to 72nd in the S&P+ offense rankings, but that’s still not good! Instead of counting the Chanticleers as equals, now they’re in the same ballpark as Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe now.
You also have to look at certain circumstances of situational play calling for this Hoosier team. In the first quarter, DeBord’s offense faced third and three from the Purdue 36 yard line. DeBord dialed up a rollout pass that went incomplete. The Hoosiers then went for it on fourth and three. DeBord elected to go to the air again. It didn’t work out. On the opening play of this drive, Stevie Scott carried the ball 14 yards, yet the man in charge neglected to give him a chance to pick up the first down in a short yardage situation. Why? Beats me.
Situations like that have become more common than should be accepted. At times it feels like DeBord is asleep at the wheel or he forgets that certain playmakers like Simmie Cobbs, Nick Westbrook or Stevie Scott are even on the field. That’s an issue.
If DeBord isn’t the man calling the plays in 2019, there are plenty of potential options to fill that role for the Hoosiers. Kliff Kingsbury was removed from his role as Texas Tech’s head coach on Saturday evening, so maybe he’s looking for a job. This is a guy that’s coached the likes of Case Keenum, Johnny Manziel, Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb, and Patrick Mahomes. He’d more than likely be an expensive hire and he should have his fair share of other options, but it would be a good idea to see if he has any interest in coming to Bloomington. Don’t count on it though. It’s probably a pipe dream.
Other than Kingsbury some other possible candidates include Allen’s former boss Hugh Freeze, who certainly has some baggage but could be worth kicking the tires on, Matt Canada if Maryland decides that he isn’t their man, or Grant Heard, IU’s passing game coordinator and receivers coach who has experience coaching under Freeze on the offensive side of the ball.
Indiana’s next offensive coordinator may not be any of those guys, but the point remains that a change needs to be made.
Figure out the balancing act
When Allen arrived in Bloomington in 2016 the defense was a mess. They were coming off a season in which they looked hapless, gave up 37.6 points per game and ended the season ranked 108th in the nation by S&P+. He turned that around quickly. In 2016 the Hoosiers rocketed up the S&P+ defensive rankings, moving all the way to 31st, then in 2017 Indiana finished 26th in the country. After losing key players like Tegray Scales, Chris Covington and Rashard Fant fans knew that IU was due for regression on that side of the ball, and that’s exactly what happened. After a season where their performance was inconsistent and undisciplined, the Hoosiers ended up ranked 87th in defensive S&P+.
Don’t get me wrong, Allen is one of the better defensive minds that Bloomington has seen. He was a great defensive coordinator and his first year of calling the defensive plays as the head coach went well, but that defense had veteran leadership and all-conference level talents. This season the defense got off to a hot start and still managed to rack up the takeaways that Allen puts such an emphasis on, but there were times where it looked like they just had no idea what they were doing.
One game that stands out was homecoming against Iowa. Nate Stanley carved up the Hoosiers for 320 yards and six touchdowns, making it look easy. Indiana couldn’t cover either of the Hawkeyes’ big tight ends as Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson both had huge days.
Just a couple of weeks later it was Minnesota that was taking the Hoosiers to the woodshed. Redshirt freshman QB Tanner Morgan, who lost the starting job in camp to a walk-on, was making his first start for the Gophers, but you couldn’t tell by the way he played. He went 17/24 for 302 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-winning 67 yard pass with less than two minutes left in the game. Minnesota scored 38 points and took the win despite IU being favored.
On Saturday the Hoosier defense struggled again. They gave up a pair of big plays to Purdue star Rondale Moore despite knowing that he would be a focal point of the Boilermaker offense and that he was a home run threat. Granted, Purdue’s offense is significantly better than either Iowa’s or Minnesota’s, but maybe you gameplan around a star like Moore that can change a game at the drop of a hat. This was also a problem against Iowa. Fant and Hockenson were Iowa’s top two receivers this season because, well, it’s Iowa—the bigger the receiver the better (this is the team that had a fullback catch a touchdown pass against IU). The point remains—if you know who the opponent’s top target is going to be, maybe do something to stop them from destroying you.
None of this means Tom Allen should take his hands off the wheel when it comes to his defense, that would be a terrible idea. It means that if he isn’t going to have what he had with the 2017 defense—Tegray Scales, Chris Covington, Rashard Fant, etc.—perhaps he needs to better figure out how to balance his roles as head coach and defensive coordinator and if that means giving more responsibilities either way to another coach, so be it.
Mark Hagen currently holds the title of Co-Defensive Coordinator, perhaps he could take on a bit more responsibility and give Allen a hand. Maybe you rejig the staff on that side of the ball and bring in somebody fresh to coordinate the defense full time. There’s an answer here somewhere, Allen needs to figure it out.
Commit to the youth
At this point in his tenure, with a pair of disappointing seasons under his belt, Tom Allen’s strongest leg to stand on regarding whether or not he should continue to have a job at IU is recruiting. He’s done it well.
In his first full season as head coach, he brought in IU’s highest ranked recruiting class since 2014. This year’s freshman class was ranked just one spot lower at 49th nationally than the class containing Dominique Booth, Tegray Scales, and Simmie Cobbs Jr. Now this season he’s got IU’s highest ranked recruiting class since 2000 with in-state stars like Sampson James, Beau Robbins, and Larry Tracy committing to join the cream and crimson. The class is ranked 41st in the nation.
With young talent coming in, it would make sense to get those young players time on the field to help them start developing into the future stars that they have the potential to be while also helping you win football games. We saw that exact thing happen with Stevie Scott this season, as the true freshman rusher broke out, claiming IU’s starting role after Cole Gest’s injury and developing into a workhorse back with plenty of upside over the course of the year.
On the other hand, we’ve seen what appears to be hesitation to put some other talented youngsters out there. The argument has, is, and assuredly will continue to be made that Mike Penix is the most talented quarterback in Bloomington. Peyton Ramsey had a solid year and is talented in his own regard, but there’s something different about Penix and they could have possibly coexisted. In a couple of games Penix was put in the game in what appeared to be a change of pace role. He gave the opposing defense looks that they didn’t prepare for or we’re not used to when Ramsey was in the game and this helped to keep defenses on their toes. Despite that, it seemed like the decision was made early that Penix would not exceed the four game limit to redshirt for the year and when he went down with an injury that was cemented. Penix was a player that could have been an every game contributor for IU, but it appeared he was only going to play in a third of the games.
For a team that was and seems to eternally be on the precipice of making the postseason that might not be a good idea. Play your playmakers despite their age. If they’re inexperienced, they’ll be experienced by season’s end. When James, Robbins, Tracy, and their classmates walk in next year don’t be afraid to throw them in the game. If you’re going to hang your hat on how good your recruits are, let them prove you right. Commit to putting your talented, young players in positions to gain experience and if they’re as good as advertised there’s no reason why they can’t help you succeed now while setting up for the future.
Ultimately, there needs to be some change in Bloomington. It doesn’t need to be major. Tom Allen doesn’t need to be fired. Fred Glass doesn’t need to nuke the program and restart from the ground up. IU doesn’t need to just abandon football altogether and let the soccer team play their games at Memorial Stadium. There are some smaller shifts that could take the Tom Allen Era of Indiana football and redirect it in a positive way.
Metaphorically, Landry just killed a man, Tim Riggins is living with a drug dealer, and Jason Street is down in Mexico trying to get injected with shark stem cells so he can walk again. The Tom Allen Era isn’t in a great spot, but it isn’t the end.