Editor’s note: This is the sixth story in a series of post-mortems on Indiana’s position groups. We’ll spread them out over the next few days, looking at how each unit fared during the 2020 season, and how each group projects to look in 2021. Next up, the secondary.
For Indiana football fans, one of the unexpected joys of the 2020 season was the difficulty in settling on the premise of what made the Hoosiers good at football, given how rare both the former and the latter are. How often in its history has Indiana been legitimately good at football and, in related news, how often is it a challenge to pick what position group or which aspect of the game is truly the Hoosiers’ best?
You could make several compelling cases about Indiana in 2020.
Indiana has two of the best wide receivers in the conference – if not the country! – you could argue, as Ty Fryfogle went from being a general afterthought in the Big Ten landscape to arguably the most productive receiver in the country over a three-week stretch.
You might argue IU’s linebackers, and specifically, Micah McFadden, are the centerpiece of coach Tom Allen’s favored side of the ball.
IU’s quarterback should be in the Heisman Trophy conversation, you might argue, if you’re an IU football normie who may have been locked in the bathroom for the entirety of the first halves against Penn State and Maryland.
Ultimately, I settled on IU’s secondary.
There are no wrong answers. Actually, there are a few. If you said IU’s rushing attack you should log off immediately and take up ice fishing or something, where no one has to listen to your opinions on football. But besides that, you could make a reasonable case that one of several position groups was IU’s best last fall. Hell, even at kicker, the Hoosiers were supremely competent.
Led by the rightful recipient of the Big Ten Tatum-Howard Defensive Back of the Year Tiawan Mullen – we don’t mention Sh*un W*de’s name in this house – IU’s secondary featured the team’s second, third and fourth-leading tacklers in Jamar Johnson, Devon Matthews and Mullen.
Normally, this would probably be a worrisome sign about the state of a team’s defense if the literal last line of defense or the players who are on the periphery are the ones leading the team in tackles, but given the way the Hoosiers played under defensive coordinator Kane Wommack – both in personnel and scheme – it’s not as if IU’s defensive line and linebackers were conducting a bull-fighting routine, letting ball-carriers and receivers run right past them, relying on defensive backs to bring them down. No, sir. Wommack loved a good corner blitz, which is why Mullen had 3.5 in eight games, which was good for third on the team, just half a sack behind the team’s best defensive lineman, Jerome Johnson.
Ultimately, Indiana’s secondary was great at reliably doing something that’s inherently unreliable – forcing turnovers. The Hoosiers forced an average of 2.5 turnovers per game, including 2.1 interceptions per game, while IU’s offense averaged 1.5, so on average, the Hoosiers were essentially gaining an extra possession per game in the turnover battle. Indiana was tied for ninth nationally in turnover margin per game and ranked second nationally with 17 interceptions in just eight games, which was only one less interception than the national leader Georgia Southern, which played 13 games last season.
Jamar Johnson and Williams had four interceptions apiece and Mullen had three. Johnson and Mullen both had a forced fumble, too.
Most notably, Indiana picked off Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields three times after the larger media narrative entering the game was that Fields wouldn’t consider stepping on the gas to get through a yellow light, much less be capable of a turnover, let alone multiple in the same game.
Indiana had one of those rare seasons where forcing turnovers could become the expectation, not the pipe dream, and the Hoosiers were good enough elsewhere on the field to make those turnovers matter.
Like consistently forcing multiple turnovers per game, Indiana’s 2020 season is likely not sustainable.
2.1 interceptions/game :: peaking at No. 7 in the AP poll, etc., etc.
But for Indiana, the hope for both parts of that comparison is that the building blocks are there to give itself a chance to repeat those successes. The story of IU’s secondary in 2020 was a flying defensive backfield that made the most of clever play-calling and schemes that confused opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines. If any of that is replicable under new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, then so too might be the wins – individually and in totality – that the Hoosiers claimed last fall.