Tom Allen was so proud of the offensive line in Indiana’s 20-16 win over Virginia last Saturday, the entire group earned the team’s Players of the Week honor. All of them.
Delroy Baker, Coy Cronk, Hunter Littlejohn, Wes Martin, Nick Linder, Brandon Knight and Simon Stepaniak.
Indiana’s front line paved the way for 237 rushing yards, 204 of which were accrued by freshman third-string running back Stevie Scott. It didn’t surrender a single sack, allowing Peyton Ramsey to complete 16-of-22 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns on a sloppy day in Bloomington.
Saturday’s outing against Virginia was the type of product Allen expected from his experienced offensive line, and a huge improvement from a week earlier against FIU, at least if you ask the head coach. The Hoosiers still rushed for over 200 yards and scored 38 points in the season-opening win, but Allen wasn’t satisfied with the way the group performed.
“I really challenged our offensive line a week ago after our first week performance about finishing blocks and finishing the plays off and really being the strength of our team and they did,” Allen said earlier this week. “They were good Week 1, but they weren’t great, and I felt like they responded.”
To say the Hoosiers have improved up front would be an understatement. After two games this season, Indiana has rushed for 402 yards and surrendered just one sack. Not bad for a unit who averaged just 130 yards on the ground per game last year (12th in the B1G) and gave up 29 sacks (8th).
But the IU offensive line will have its toughest challenge this Saturday against Ball State.
Yes, that Ball State.
The Cardinals come to Bloomington after a strong showing against No. 8 Notre Dame in a 24-16 loss. But the story wasn’t the final score, it was how Mike Neu’s defense flustered a quality Irish offense from start to finish.
Ball State’s new 3-4 scheme, implemented by defensive coordinator David Elson, caused a lot of problems for Notre Dame on Saturday. The Cardinals totaled 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks and allowed just 117 rushing yards. The Irish needed 41 carries to reach that mark.
Elson’s defense was also able to aggravate Brandon Wimbush most of the afternoon. The senior quarterback completed 17-of-31 passes for nearly 300 yards, but threw three interceptions in the process. He also finished the day with -7 rushing yards.
Those aren’t numbers a MAC team typically posts against a top 10 power.
Ball State’s linebackers have been excellent run-stoppers through the first two games of the year, particularly Jaylin Thomas and Jacob White — both recorded nine tackles last weekend in South Bend. The Cardinals won’t be afraid to put the pressure on Ramsey in passing situations, either.
Really, Indiana’s entire offense should be prepared for a physical, aggressive and opportunistic defense on Saturday.
Where this game could be won, or lost, for the Hoosiers this weekend is in the trenches on third down situations. Ball State slammed the door on Notre Dame on third downs last week, allowing the Irish to convert on just 4-of-14 attempts in the game.
It was that aspect of the game that concerned Allen after Indiana’s win over FIU two weeks ago, and where he believed his offensive line fell short.
“I want those third-and-ones,” Allen said after the FIU game. “Those, we have to get those third-and-ones and that’s what I expect and that’s what we’re going to be, we have to be able to do. And it was, lost a one-on-one battle up front, which was the cause of that one. On a critical situation and we want to be able to stay on the field and get those key first downs.”
The Hoosiers were better at converting on those third-and-short situations last week against Virginia. On a third-and-one on the team’s first possession, Scott broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run. Late in the fourth quarter, IU faced a third-and-three and converted on a 28-yard pass from Ramsey to Luke Timian to creep into Cavaliers territory.
At the end of the day, the Hoosiers converted on 5-of-7 third down attempts of four yards or less. That’s a big reason why Indiana heads into the final game of the non-conference schedule with a 2-0 record rather than sitting at .500.
Ball State’s defense presents a huge challenge for Mike Debord’s offense this Saturday. The Cardinals are capable of forcing turnovers, shutting down the run and frustrating the quarterback. And they’ve done it better than the other two teams Indiana has faced so far — at least from the limited sample size we’ve seen.
Converting on third down isn’t the only thing the Hoosiers have to do on Saturday, but how they handle those situations could be the difference between 3-0 and 2-1. That’s a lot of pressure for the guys in the trenches.
Another Player of the Week award could be in store for the entire offensive line if it wins those battles this weekend against Ball State.
It would certainly be deserving.