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The Cincinnati loss and Indiana football’s immediate ceiling

Nobody went into this game thinking it was going to be a win. The Bearcats were double-digit favorites.

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Of Connor Bazelak’s four starts in 2022, three have ended with him throwing over 50 pass attempts for Indiana’s offense.

This trend, needing to pass when down late in a game finally came to a head both in a loss and with a record against Cincinnati on Saturday. Bazelak tossed a program-record 66(!!!) passes against the Bearcats.

By the time the game went to halftime, Indiana found itself in a 28-point hole thanks to an explosive second quarter from the Bearcats offense that featured Ben Bryant chucking the ball deep for scores or backbreaking plays.

A fumble recovery touchdown after Bazelak was sacked in the shadow of Indiana’s endzone was just the cherry on top. The game felt over already.

The Bearcats went into cruise control in the second half and even gave the Hoosiers multiple chances to sneak back into the game to no avail.

Indiana has yet to develop an identity on offense, and that wasn’t about to change in a single game. There’s fight and it’s very clear that the Hoosiers are putting the work in to try and get the ball into the endzone, but they were hampered for numerous reasons.

First, this wasn’t just any old defense. This was a unit recruited, developed and game planned by the accomplished hands of Luke Fickell, who led a team effort to get the Bearcats into the College Football Playoff last season.

This unit lacked some of the pass rush, linebacker and secondary talent of last year’s team, but that team was as good as it was because of coaching. It’s not at all a surprise that it’s still a well-oiled defense, Fickell’s built a program capable of sustained success without the need for a rebuild.

Second, Indiana wasn’t exactly helping itself. The issues on the offensive line are well-documented. Indiana’s PFF pass blocking grade of 29.8 was its worst on the season, and the run blocking grade of 49.9 isn’t much better.

Indiana compiled 117 rushing yards, good for 3.8 per carry. Of those yards, a whopping 106(!!!) came solely on runs to the right, with runs to the left producing minimal yardage and seeing less use out of necessity. When Indiana needed a run, they had to sent it behind Tim Weaver, Khalil Benson and Parker Hanna.

This isn’t entirely surprising given the absent Matthew Bedford’s prowess in the run game.

But that just isn’t enough production to help Bazelak, Indiana’s quarterback faced pressure on an astounding 43.7% of his dropbacks, finishing the day with 280 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions... again on those 66(!!!) pass attempts.

To Bazelak’s credit, he managed with what he had. Bazelak completed 8 of his 13 attempts when blitzed, even taking advantage of the open look for a touchdown

I both do not need to tell you why Indiana is having Bazelak throw that much and why that is very not good. If you’ve watched the games, you know. That brings us to our final point.

The defense has to step up. Tom Allen has sought to build this program defense-first, and he’s churned out some respectable united through the years with the high coming in 2020 when talent and Kane Wommack’s playcalling were ultimately the catalyst to a historically successful season.

Now Allen has reassumed control of the defense, bringing Chad Wilt aboard to be a point man. It’s always been Allen’s scheme, but his return to playcalling has been lackluster.

Illinois was able to get the better of Indiana’s defense on multiple run plays, Western Kentucky (known in the moment for its offense) was able to beat Indiana at every level and Cincinnati was able to torch Indiana’s secondary through the air for explosive pass after explosive pass.

This is an all-around issue. There are problems all over the place that need to be corrected immediately if Indiana wants to reach six wins.

Indiana’s immediate ceiling was already heavily, heavily hinted at in near losses to every team but Idaho (and at times against Idaho), but the Hoosiers tried to stand up against Cincinnati and hit their collective head.

Tweaks can be made, maybe, to make that ceiling slightly higher in the short-term to get to a bowl this season.

Indiana’s long-term ceiling under Allen is a bigger question. In honesty, 2019 is probably the better measure of Indiana’s success than 2020 because the Big Ten was relatively intact.

Big Ten quarterbacks aren’t going to throw a million passes into the waiting hands of Indiana’s defense every year like they did in 2020. The quality of play vastly improved and that’s not sustainable for obvious reasons.

Indiana football isn’t going to turn into the type of program that regularly beats, or even contends with, powers like Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State (duh) or even those out west like Iowa and Wisconsin.

But 2019 proved that it can be the kind of program that beats those on its level, the Rutgerses, Marylands and Purdues, and maybe even sneak a win against some above its weight class, the Michigan States and Nebraskas.

And maybe, just maybe, once in a while it can stun one of those big time powers.

There’s issues that need to be fixed for that to happen. Indiana needs to catch up with the rest of the conference in offensive line play and the defense needs to patch the leaks, but the program has proven capable of doing both in past years.

With the elimination of divisions likely on the horizon, that’s certainly possible. And if you’re Indiana Athletics or just a fan of the Hoosiers, you take that and be happy with it.