At 2-3 with three losses to teams that are now ranked in the top five of the AP poll, there is still plenty of season left for the Indiana Hoosiers. Cincinnati’s win in South Bend made the Sept. 18 loss in Bloomington look much better, as the Hoosiers were able to at least keep it closer than the No. 14-ranked Fighting Irish did. The upcoming Penn State at Iowa game this coming Saturday will tell us more, but so far neither of those losses are looking catastrophic for Indiana’s bowl hopes either.
For all the reasons to remain optimistic, anyone who has watched Indiana play this year knows that the offense will need to shape up in order to salvage what is left of the 2021 season. In two Big Ten games so far, the Hoosiers have combined for six points and Saturday’s shutout loss in Happy Valley was the first time they had been held scoreless in a game since 2000.
There have been unfortunate injuries. D.J. Matthews and now Mike Penix’s health are certainly detrimental to a team that hasn’t found its stride through five games. And the number of drops and unforced errors suggest that this group may not be completely comfortable playing in the newfound spotlight that’s followed last year’s success. It’s becoming increasingly obvious, though, that there is a deeper problem with the offense, unrelated to injuries or lack of execution. That problem is likely Nick Sheridan.
Indiana has gotten steadily worse since Kalen DeBoer left
2019 was the high-water mark for Indiana’s offense under coach Tom Allen. Kalen DeBoer led the offense to the third-best yards-per-game average in the conference that year, jumping four spots from the seventh-place finish Mike Debord accomplished in 2018. The 2019 squad was also fifth in points per game in the conference.
Since DeBoer’s departure following the 2019 season, things have gotten worse. In 2020, the Hoosiers dropped back to seventh within the conference in yards per game. So far this year, the offense ranks 11th. Last year’s decline was somewhat obscured by the fact that the points per game remained somewhat stable (28.9 in 2020 vs. 31.8 in 2019), but this season is showing that last year’s point production was probably an anomaly.
In his statistical recap of the Penn State game, Crimson Quarry’s Andy Wittry expanded a little more on some of the disturbing trends like offensive success rate and overall field position. Suffice to say: it’s Not Good. As Andy suggests, Tuttle could potentially provide some stability to help right the ship, but there are still reasons to be skeptical of a Nick Sheridan-coached offense, no matter who is taking the snaps.
Since 2017, Indiana has recruited better and better offensive players
Whether you want to credit Tom Allen’s personality or the team’s on-field success, it’s undeniable that the program has started to land more talented players. According to 247Sports’ recruiting rankings, four of the five highest-rated players that Indiana has ever landed were recruited during Allen’s tenure. And these rankings do not account for the transfer portal, through which Indiana has landed Tuttle, Matthews and Stephen Carr, to name a few.
The talent upgrade is not completely top-heavy, either. In 2017, Allen brought in nine offensive players, all of whom were 3-star recruits. The average 247Sports rating for the class was .8311. 2018 was similarly full of 3-star recruits, as all 10 offensive players Indiana brought in earned that ranking, but the overall grade improved to an average of .8543 that season. Landing the since departed Sampson James in 2019 signaled an even bigger leap, as he was one of two 4-star recruits , alongside seven 3-stars who matriculated to Bloomington as part of an overall class whose average rating sat at .8679. Stephen Carr became Allen’s first signing of a transfer who was a former 5-star recruit in a class that featured two more 4-stars and 10 3-stars for an average rating of .8777.
Clearly, Nick Sheridan cannot blame his unsuccessful tenure on a lack of talent.
I could be talked into giving Sheridan the opportunity to prove his worth with Tuttle, who does have the potential to be a stabilizing force for the offense. However, given the downward trends since his hiring despite an influx of talent, I think he should be on a fairly short leash. Indiana does not often have a sideline full of 4- and 5-star recruits ready to step in and play, and next year Indiana is set to welcome at least another pair of 4-star offensive players in Omar Cooper and Gi’Bran Payne. If Indiana want to salvage the season and this core group of talented players, Allen may want to take a hard look at replacing his play-caller.