After 2-score day, can special teams continue to make a difference for Indiana?
Last season, Indiana frequently won games by empowering its defense to turn opponents over, giving its offense short fields.
On average, the Hoosiers picked up an extra touchdown per game by doing so. As a result, IU had one of its best seasons in recent memory, probably the last 30 years, by going 6-2 and playing in a marquee bowl game in Florida.
Perhaps in 2021, the Hoosiers have found another way to give their scoring a boost: special teams.
Indiana had one of the finest special teams days in program history on Saturday. The Hoosiers blocked 2 punts, 1 of which was returned for a touchdown. They returned a punt return for a TD, recorded a 72-yard kickoff return to set up a TD and had another 50-plus-yard return negated by a penalty. It was the first time the Hoosiers had 2 special teams scores in the same game since beating Kentucky in 1969.
“The players know how important special teams are to us, because we work on them so much,” coach Tom Allen said after Indiana beat Idaho 56-14. “But the challenge was, ‘Hey, let’s make those game-changing plays.’ We’ve always been really solid the last few years, but ‘help us go win a game.’ ”
It’s too much to ask the special teams to replicate the productivity — IU is unlikely to score 2 more special teams TD the rest of the season, let alone in one game — but perhaps they can give the offense an edge. And it might be needed if IU is to navigate the gauntlet it faces over the next several weeks. The Hoosiers host No. 8 Cincinnati at noon Saturday before a game at Western Kentucky (which is 1-1 after a 3-point loss at Army on Sept. 11). After, IU jumps back into the Big Ten, with its first 3 games at Penn State, vs. reenergized Michigan State in Memorial Stadium and home vs. Ohio State. Then of Indiana’s last 5 games, 3 are on the road.
The Hoosiers’ special teams success isn’t a fluke. Allen has a special teams background, having been Ole Miss’s coordinator for 3 seasons from 2012-14, his first coaching experience at the FBS level. With that, the 5th-year IU coach has made it a priority in Bloomington, tabbing Kasey Teegardin as his special teams coordinator in 2020 after William Inge left to become the defensive coordinator at Fresno State.
The change came at a time when IU wanted to up its performance, especially after special teams let it down at the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl at the end of the ’19 season. In a lose-from-ahead 1-point setback to Tennessee, the Hoosiers missed an extra point and a long field goal, and also couldn’t cover a late on-side kick, which proved to be monumental as the Volunteers scored 14 points in 31 seconds to rally from a 22-9 deficit.
The Hoosiers have the personnel to continue to put pressure on opponents’ special teams. Receiver DJ Matthews’ 81-yard return for a touchdown was the 2nd of his career, after he’d had one at Florida State. IU’s second punt returner, Reese Taylor, averaged 8.1 yards per return last season, the 4th-best mark in the Big Ten.
Junior Jacolby Hewitt, a reserve wide receiver, had the 72-yard kick return that set up an IU score, and DB Bryant Fitzgerald, who has been a starter in the secondary the last couple seasons, had a 52-yarder, although it was called back.
Reserve wide receiver Javon Swinton scored on offense, but also on his punt block. Perhaps his versatility shouldn’t be a surprise, considering he was a highly productive receiver and cornerback in high school. Backup tight end AJ Barner had the 2nd blocked punt, and also scored on a 76-yard pass reception late in the blowout.
Point being: IU has talent on its special teams units. And we haven’t yet mentioned place-kicker Charles Campbell, a Lou Groza nominee, and new punter James Evans, who has been as solid as possible through 2 games.
“Kasey Teegardin has done a phenomenal job with that group,” Allen said. “To have two blocked punts, one for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown, another long kickoff return, an overall excellent job.”