This past weekend opened a stretch of three straight games when Indiana will be playing a non-conference opponent it saw last year. While a perfect comparison will never be possible due to coaching changes and roster turnover, it’s not often that Indiana gets to host the same Big Sky opponent in Bloomington in consecutive years.
Let’s see what we can learn from comparing the 2021 and 2022 editions of Indiana versus Idaho, if anything.
The most notable thing about last year’s Indiana v. Idaho game was that it was the only game in the 2021 season when the Hoosiers tallied more than 35 points. As I noted in the preview for this year’s game though, it wasn’t all offense, as Indiana was able to jump out to a 21-0 first quarter lead in part due to a blocked punt recovered for an Indiana touchdown.
Obviously, this year’s Hoosiers were not able to replicate that after getting shut out in the first half of this Saturday’s matchup, but the 23 point third quarter this year suggests that this group may be a little more explosive, since all three touchdowns came from just the offense.
Some of this comes down to quarterback play. Despite a slow first half, perhaps due to the rainy conditions, Bazelak posted a higher PFF grade this year, 67.7, than Michael Penix did in last year’s matchup with a 63.8. To be fair, Penix got pulled early when the game was obviously out of reach for the Vandals, but his 11 completions that day only led to 68 yards and 4.3 yards per attempt.
Most surprising about this year’s matchup was the way the run game was able to put up better numbers overall despite having a statistically worse offensive line performance than last year. As I noted in the game recap, the run blocking this past week was Not Good. This was reflected in advanced statistics and visible to the naked eye, as Indiana struggled to push the Big Sky team, an FCS conference, off the ball in the red zone early on Saturday.
Nevertheless, this year’s group, led by Shaun Shivers, totaled 239 yards on 36 carries compared to 179 yards on 50 carries last year. Some of this is due to Penix losing more sack yards in last year’s game than Bazelak did this year, but even comparing the lead backs shows that Shivers did more on fewer carries than Stephen Carr did against a Vandals defense that appears more talented on paper this year than last.
This does tend to show that I was wrong for blaming the time of possession discrepancy entirely on the offensive line this year, but does underscore just how much faster paced this year’s offense has been than last year’s. In 2022, five Hoosier receivers had receptions of 10+ yards compared to just three last year and Indiana even demonstrated the ability to generate more explosive runs with Shivers long 46 yard run being almost twice as long as Carr’s longest of 26 yards last year.
To me, this means two things. First, Shaun Shivers runs hard. Harder than a lot of the backs Indiana’s had in recent years. Secondly, Walt Bell’s offense, for now, is way faster and more explosive than Nick Sheridan’s was. Whether this is part of his overall offensive philosophy or just Bell working with what he’s got, the results on the field are staggeringly different. Indiana had the ball for 33:24 minutes in 2021 versus just 22:02 this year.
Because of the aforementioned discrepancy in time of possession between the two games, evaluating the defense based purely on the box score can be a bit misleading. For example, Indiana gave up almost twice as many rush yards this year (126) versus last year (65), but it was on twice as many attempts. Similarly, the passing numbers may look comparable, but the Vandals actually attempted 13 more passes last year than this year.
PFF’s premium stats can be extremely helpful in these scenarios, and the advanced statistics suggest that the defensive performances were fairly similar, each earning respectable grades in the high 70’s. Aside from one turnover forced last year and an additional touchdown surrendered this year, the numbers look almost identical across the board.
The biggest difference was a drop off in the coverage grade, mostly due to a shaky game from Jaylin Williams where he allowed four receptions on three targets for 64 yards. He was better in week one, allowing just two receptions on four targets for only 22 yards against Illinois, so it’s not really something to worry about too much at this point in the year.
Tiawan Mullen’s health was apparent in this year’s matchup, as he allowed just one reception on four targets compared to 11 receptions on 13 targets for 91 yards last year. It was clear for most of the season last year that he wasn’t healthy, but these numbers give a glimpse at just how much better he, and Indiana’s secondary with him, can be when 100%.
Eck was brought into revamp the Vandals offense, and though he’s still in his first year, it’s probably a good sign that Indiana was able to replicate its shut down performance against a different offensive system. Especially considering how much more time they had to play this year.
Well, as I mentioned, it’s impossible to make perfect one to one comparisons given the high turnover in players and the coaching staff. On the other hand, seeing what Shaun Shivers did with less protection against a more talented defense than Indiana faced last year is an objectively encouraging sign for this year’s group.
Every Indiana fan knew that the Hoosiers would need to show some signs of life and improvement this year to avoid the disaster that was last season, and so far, it’s tough to tell what we’ve got. This year’s group can score faster and break off bigger plays, but couldn’t pour it on for four straight quarters and run the clock the way last year’s group did against Idaho.
The defense may have to do more this year than it did even last year, based on the jump in time of possession, but so far they’ve been up to the task. Only time, and more non-conference rematches, will tell if they can.