It certainly could have been worse, as it appeared it was going to be when Indiana trailed 38-10 at half. Indiana playing better in the second half isn’t necessarily surprising in and of itself, but the second half turnaround really drives home What Could Have Been, had the first half been a little less bad.
At the end of the day, Indiana was a 16.5 point underdog entering the game, so the end result was as predictable as the second half turnaround. The Hoosiers lost for all of the reasons you would have expected them to, and Cincinnati was as good as advertised in the preseason (Arkansas also looking good makes their week one loss even more excusable).
It would have been a nice win, but Indiana still has a path to bowl eligibility with plenty of other struggling programs on the slate for the rest of the season. Maybe Indiana will have to address some of the bigger picture concerns to win three more, maybe not. It’s been a weird one.
Here’s Three Things:
Which Team is Indiana?
Today’s loss to Cincinnati featured arguably the biggest second half turnaround from Indiana this year, since it came against a good Cincinnati team rather than Idaho, Western Kentucky, or Illinois. In the first half today, they appeared to be the team that should have lost to the Hilltoppers. And then the second half happened.
As I wrote in the preview for this game, Cincinnati has a Good offensive line. Indiana’s defense completely bottled up Indiana’s run game today, and would have shut out the Bearcats entirely in the second half if not for a garbage time touchdown. Oddly enough, it was a bit of a breakdown from the secondary - Indiana’s strongest unit - that put them in a hole in the first half.
The offense didn’t really find a spark in the second half like the defense did, but did manage to put up two touchdowns after a pretty abysmal first half. Aside from that garbage time touchdown there at the end, Indiana overcame a surprisingly weak defensive performance and average offensive performance to make the end of the game competitive despite being down four touchdowns at half.
Margin for Error
With the way the first three games went, it was clear that Indiana was making too many mistakes to win consistently in the Big Ten or even make a bowl game. Somehow though, they avoided facing any of the consequences for their sloppy play and entered this week 3-0.
Today, things caught up to the Hoosiers. A bad defensive stretch to end the first half, a couple of bad individual performances from some of Indiana’s key players, costly penalties, bad Red Zone offense, and a D.J. Matthews injury were enough to sink Indiana today and keep the game out of reach even when the defense tried to lead a second half comeback.
When so many things go wrong, it can be difficult to discern one specific cause for a loss. There are glaring issues with this team (I will get to that later), but Indiana managed to make the game close and showed some real fight in spite of all their problems. The difference between today and the first three games really just comes down to the fact that Indiana made too many mistakes to overcome their deficiencies.
Now feels like the appropriate time to mention that Cincinnati is also Good. Indiana was not supposed to win this game. Cincinnati’s defensive talent shined, with last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Ivan Pace Jr., exploiting a struggling offensive line unit. Maybe a mistake-free game from Indiana would not have made a difference.
Until the offensive line issue is addressed, it’s going to be tough to evaluate Indiana games as a whole. Being able to run the ball would alleviate the pressure on the defense, Bazelak, and a receiving core that may be without Matthews again going forward. What is a college quarterback’s stat line supposed to look like when he has to throw the ball 66 times in a game?
What’s clear now though is that Indiana cannot afford to make so many mistakes in every facet of the game if they expect to win going forward.
(I have decided that until Tom Allen decides to make a change with the offensive line, I will not change how I cover them. Here’s my coverage of the issue from Indiana’s Week 3 Win against Western Kentucky.)
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.