Indiana is a handful of big plays away from being 0-3 to start the 2022 campaign, but enters week 4 undefeated after a dramatic overtime victory over Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers tried to set the tone early this year with some big hits, racking up multiple unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness calls on the first drive alone. It was clear early on that they had not forgotten last year’s two point loss in Bowling Green and wanted their first win over a Big Ten program today.
Until Charles Campbell’s 51-yard field goal cleared the crossbar in overtime, it appeared as though the Hilltoppers would have their revenge. Indiana trailed by 8 with under 4 minutes left in the game and nothing up to that point indicated that they would have the juice for another touchdown and two point conversion.
And yet, here we are. Undefeated three weeks in. Don’t ask me how; I don’t know.
Here’s three things:
Highlighting a running back in a game where Indiana rushed for 120 total yards may seem strange, but today we learned that Walt Bell has the option to mix things up in the backfield when the going gets tough for Shaun Shivers.
Henderson broke off a couple of first down runs in his 11 carries for 65 yards today, finding holes and making defenders miss downfield to extend plays. The line continues to struggle with run blocking, so it’s going to be important for Indiana to be able to throw a couple of different running styles at defenses to keep them guessing.
While the advanced stats don’t necessarily reflect it yet this season, I also like Henderson a little better as a pass blocker for the simple fact that, at 5’11 and 215lbs, he’s four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Shivers. There have already been a few times this season where Shivers was absolutely blown up by an unblocked pass rusher, and hopefully the bigger, sturdier Henderson could mitigate that a bit.
I could probably copy and paste the same entry from last week’s complaints about the offensive line and it would be just as applicable today. There were multiple red zone drives that ended in chip shot field goals rather than touchdowns, a turnover on downs in the middle of the field, and a couple of fourth down attempts from Western Kentucky to confirm that this G5 school was not afraid of Indiana’s offense.
Again, the inability to establish any run game at all, especially for short yardage, proved to be a massive problem for Indiana in multiple facets of the game. The stalled red zone drives are an obvious example and the time of possession was, once again, subpar against a bad opponent. Even the questionable backward pass/fumble fiasco was a direct result of Indiana’s need to throw the ball from any position on the field.
The referees made an attempt to overshadow the offensive line as the story of the game, even when Indiana was moving the ball on offense. I still do not understand what about the late hit on a sliding Bazelak wasn’t a targeting, though I’m not sure that call was the reason the Hoosiers ended up having to settle for a field goal on that drive.
On the other hand, even average run blocking would probably eliminate the need to call multiple designed run plays for Connor Bazelak in the first place. He’s growing on me as Indiana’s starting quarterback, but his strength is not the run game.
Does it matter?
Take this as you will; existentially, relating to Indiana’s offense, or just as a reaction to one of the dumbest football games you could ever watch.
It’s not exactly a stretch to say that Indiana should be 0-3 right now. Instead they are 3-0. They were outplayed for the majority of all three games, had their weaknesses laid bare week after week, and yet have not lost. Even in this overtime, Indiana did its best to make the game winning kick more difficult, going backwards in two out of the three plays they ran before finally teeing it up for Campbell.
When there’s such an obvious deficiency for a team, it may be tempting to hope they lose as a result of that weakness to force the head coach or athletic director to address the make up of the coaching staff. At the same time, Indiana is now just three wins away from bowl eligibility, with games against a struggling Cincinnati squad and a Nebraska team that’s been skipping along rock bottom since the teams last met in 2019.
I wrote last week that it seemed like something would give soon and that Indiana would have to pay for playing roughly a 4:1 ratio of bad quarters to good. This may be true, or it may not. Indiana arguably played four bad quarters today and really only played well for half of the overtime while still walking away with a win.
If today proves anything, it’s that college football doesn’t make sense most of the time. Indiana could ride this wave to bowl eligibility and set themselves up at another shot at ending the Hoosiers’ current dry spell in the postseason.