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An inept offense and the nation’s hardest schedule are putting Indiana’s defensive efforts to waste

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Indiana’s win column says ‘2’ and its loss column says ‘4.’ The defense has played well enough for the opposite

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

One week after Michigan State became just the fifth team in FBS history to produce a 300-yard passer, 200-yard rusher and 200-yard receiver in the same game, Indiana’s defense held No. 10 Michigan State to just 13 points on 12 offensive possessions – ignoring the Spartans’ final possession when they bled the remainder of the clock with kneels – en route to a 20-15 win for the Spartans, who improved their undefeated start to the tune of 7-0, while the Hoosiers dropped to 2-4.

The Hoosiers played without All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen and fellow starting corner Reese Taylor managed to play just one defensive series before being sidelined, yet the Spartans’ offense was held scoreless in the first half and Indiana kept Michigan State out of the end zone until the Spartans’ ninth possession of the game.

Indiana’s inept offense – a unit that, on Saturday, scored a touchdown against a Big Ten opponent for the first time since early in the third quarter at Wisconsin, back on Dec. 5, 2020 – combined with the country’s hardest regular-season schedule is wasting a defense that has arguably performed well enough for the Hoosiers to live up to the expectations of a team ranked No. 17 in the preseason and a program that went 14-7 in the previous two seasons.

Any serious Heisman Trophy talk for Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, the sensational transfer from Wake Forest, likely ended on Saturday, even after a road victory for the Spartans in which Walker managed 84 rushing yards. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry against Indiana and he only had one carry that resulted in a gain of at least 10 yards.

Walker’s success rate on the ground – defined as the percent of first-down plays that resulted in a gain of at least 50 percent of the yards needed for a first down, second-down plays in which at least 70 percent of the necessary yards were gained, and third and fourth-down plays that resulted in a first down or touchdown – was 43.5 percent, which was almost a percentage point and a half lower than Indiana’s season average of 44.9 percent against rushing plays.

That means almost six out of every 10 carries for Walker were unsuccessful in terms of Michigan State’s offense staying on schedule. For reference, Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford – another talented back Indiana’s defense has faced this season – managed a 45-percent success rate against the Hoosiers, who posted a stuff rate (zero or negative yards) of 30 percent of Ford’s carries.

When defending arguably the best running back they’ve faced to date on Saturday, the Hoosiers played even better than they have this season on the whole. The Spartans’ offense managed just five explosive plays, defined as runs of at least 12 yards and passing plays that gained at least 16, which translates to an explosive-play rate of 8.5 percent, excluding end-of-half kneels. Indiana’s explosive-play rate allowed this season is 11 percent.

Michigan State’s overall success rate of 37.3 percent was the second-lowest Indiana’s defense has allowed this season, behind only Idaho (36.1%), as the Hoosiers treated an undefeated, top-10 team similarly to how they treated an FCS opponent that was only in town because they were paid to be there.

With the exception of All-American linebacker Micah McFadden’s incredibly costly targeting penalty at the end of the first half against Cincinnati, the Hoosiers’ defense has arguably performed well enough for Indiana to be 4-2 with a pair of wins over top-10 teams against one of the toughest schedules in the country to date. That is if they had even an average offense to support their efforts.

The Hoosiers rank 36th nationally in total defense at 333 yards allowed per game, per cfbstats.com, and Indiana has already surrendered four defensive or special teams touchdowns through six games, so Indiana’s defense is only allowing 22.2 points per game.

Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle’s first-quarter pick-six on Saturday could’ve been the difference in a game that was ultimately decided by a five-point margin.

The Hoosiers’ offense has had 77 plays in the red zone this season and they’ve managed just a 40-percent success rate on those plays. Indiana’s 79-percent red-zone conversion rate is tied for 95th nationally, per cfbstats.com, and its 50-percent red-zone touchdown rate is tied for 101st, along with the likes of UConn, Kansas and Rice.

In 24 goal-to-go plays this season, the Hoosiers have scored eight touchdowns.

On a potentially game-tying 2-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Indiana attempted a delayed shovel pass from Tuttle to tight end Peyton Hendershot – the type of gadget play that has been popularized by Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs – and it was immediately snuffed out by the Spartans.

Indiana outgained Michigan State 322 total yards to 241, committed 99 fewer yards’ worth of penalties than the Spartans, and posted a higher conversion rate on third down, yet it was Michigan State that left Memorial Stadium with the win.

Halfway through the regular season, Indiana is 2-4 with games against No. 5 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan among the Hoosiers’ next three contests.

Ten of Indiana’s defensive starters on Saturday are some form of senior – true senior, redshirt senior, etc. – and this group, as it’s currently constituted, won’t be together much longer. While Indiana’s defensive success this season isn’t of the “intercept you twice a game” variety a la 2020, the 2021 Hoosiers’ defense has allowed just 22 points per game against ranked opponents this season. In an offensive era where the best teams in the country often score double that amount, Indiana’s offense needing to produce, say, four scoring drives a game should be a reasonable ask.

But right now, it’s not a realistic one.

With an offense that will face its own personnel questions in the offseason at essentially every position group, plus potentially offensive coordinator, Indiana is letting the efforts of a top-40 defense go to waste due to the incompetence of a potentially bottom-40 offense and its designers.