Don't blame McFadden's ejection -- blame the same old Hoosiers for showing up
There is no question that Saturday’s showdown between Indiana and No. 8 Cincinnati turned on a dime when Hoosiers linebacker Micah McFadden was ejected late in the second quarter.
IU led 14-0 and appeared to have the Bearcats headed toward their 5th punt of the first half. No flags were on the field.
An ominous buzz from the replay booth changed everything.
The crown of McFadden’s helmet connected with that of Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder. That McFadden appeared to be launched into Ridder with the help of a Cincinnati blocker was of no consequence. By the letter of a law that draws no quarter, Cincinnati had a first down and McFadden was ejected from the game.
The Bearcats scored their first touchdown on that bonus possession, and went into the locker room with renewed life thanks to a 10-0 run. There was a feeling of inevitability to their eventual 38-24 victory.
Despite McFadden’s ejection being the clear turning point of the game, Indiana’s loss cannot be blamed on that moment alone. A greater issue was at play Saturday: Tom Allen is going to need some more Borax if he’s going to completely clear the stench of the same old Hoosiers.
For all the improvement the program has shown under Allen’s leadership, it remains clear that Indiana football’s greatest foe on the path to consistent respectability remains Indiana football itself.
Red zone = dead zone
You cannot beat any Top 10 opponent, much less one with a defensive identity, with 3 empty trips in the red zone. And that was ultimately the most significant factor in Indiana’s demise.
Tom Allen on three empty red-zone trips: "You can’t be in the red zone three times and get no points. To me, that was the game right there." #iufb
— Zach Osterman (@ZachOsterman) September 18, 2021
Allen made a mistake early, passing up a sure 10-0 lead when he tried to go for it on a 4th-and-1 from the Cincinnati 10 on the opening drive of the second quarter. The Hoosiers had already come up short on back-to-back run attempts against Cincy’s stout defensive front: a 2nd-and-2 and a 3rd-and-3.
Going for it wasn’t necessarily the wrong choice, but sticking to the ground game to do so predictably backfired.
Then there were the turnovers.
With the Hoosiers again safely in field-goal range to potentially make it 10-0, Michael Penix forced a pass into the end zone and was intercepted. Three more points off the board.
The woes continued in the second half.
With the Hoosiers driving to take a potential fourth-quarter lead, replay was once again Indiana’s enemy. A review correctly found that Tim Baldwin fumbled at the Cincy 2, more or less putting the nail in the coffin for Allen’s chance at a signature win.
Bad defensive penalties
McFadden’s targeting call was not the only consequential flag for the Indiana defense.
The Hoosiers came up with a nice red zone stop early in the third quarter, forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal that would cut IU’s lead to 14-13. But Indiana was lined up offside for the play, tempting Luke Fickell into going for it on a much more manageable 4th-and-1.
Unlike Allen’s gambit, Fickell’s worked. The Bearcats converted and eventually punched it in for their first lead.
Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, the penalty on the field goal wasn’t the only special teams issue.
Special teams miscues
If there was one area in which Indiana figured to have an advantage over Cincinnati, it was special teams.
And then it wasn’t.
It looked like the same old Hoosiers were finally dead when IU responded to the lead change with a gutsy 5-play, 75-yard drive that put Indiana up 21-17.
That momentum lasted all of 13 seconds as Tre Tucker returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown that put the Bearcats back on top.
Bad clock management
The Hoosiers burned 2 timeouts on offense in the third quarter, which anyone who has watched the program long enough recognized as a potentially disastrous turn of events.
If Indiana had the ability to stop the clock, it feels likely that Penix would have taken a third-down sack with 3:31 remaining in a 30-24 game instead of uncorking a bad throw that was destined to be the backbreaking interception.
Indiana would have won this game if it could have stayed out of its own way. But the Hoosiers couldn’t, as was the case in a season-opening loss at Iowa.
The hope for Indiana fans? The Hoosiers are 1-2 with both losses coming to legit Top 10 opponents. Maybe this will be as rough as it gets in 2021.
But given the ever-looming ghosts of Indiana football failure, there is reason to be concerned.