Indiana football: 5 dream and 5 disaster scenarios for 2022
The Hoosiers want to bounce back big in 2022.
They’ll need to after a very bad ’21 that saw them go only 2-10, including 0-9 in Big Ten play. Indiana’s last victory came on Sept. 25, a 2-point win over Western Kentucky. Coach Tom Allen’s team has a new look this season, with 1st-year coordinators and a bunch of early-impact, it’s hoped, transfers. But little is known. Spring and camp have been closed up tight, leaving much speculation about what Indiana could be in ’22.
Let’s take a look at 5 dream scenarios for the Hoosiers. And 5 disasters.
The Hoosiers are able to put the disastrous 2021 season in the past quickly, as they jump out to a great start by winning their first 3 games.
And man, they’re attention-getters for a squad that needs a boost of momentum again after losing 8 games in a row to end last season. But new quarterback Connor Bazelak looks at home in Bloomington almost immediately, as he orchestrates a mild home upset of visiting Illinois in the opener, throwing for 275 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 4-point win. Searching for an early candidate for a star player? Look no further than running back Shaun Shivers, the Auburn transfer, who rolls off a 50-yard 4th-quarter touchdown that proves the difference.
The Hoosiers roll past Idaho in Week 2, then eke out another win in Game 3 vs. Western Kentucky as the defense — healthy again after the ’21 dumpster fire — comes up with key stops in the 3rd and 4th quarters, including a game-sealing interception from All-America cornerback Tiawan Mullen.
A 3-0 start gives the Hoosiers a chance to get to 6 wins and back to a bowl game, if only they can win 3 of their final 9 games, and there are possibilities, like the home games vs. Maryland and Purdue and the road trip to Rutgers.
Dexter brings juice
Bazelak wins the QB1 job out of training camp, but IU’s offensive coaches, including 1st-year coordinator Walt Bell, are so enamored with backup Dexter Williams II that they decide they must work him into the game plan.
And boy does it pay off.
After IU weaves its way to a 3-3 start — in this case it was upended at home by Western Kentucky but then continued Scott Frost’s nightmare in Lincoln by eking out a win there, after yet another Cornhuskers’ special teams blunder — with Williams picking his spots to make an impact.
Then, in a wide-open game against Maryland on Oct. 15, the redshirt freshman breaks out, dazzling the home crowd with eye-opening athleticism that has the Terrapins’ defense on its back. Williams throws for 100 yards, rushes for 100 yards and accounts for 3 touchdowns — Bazelak throws 2 others — as the Hoosiers beat Maryland in a shootout, 49-45.
It’s Win No. 4. Could IU find its way now to 6? Or maybe even beyond?
IU’s climb might just be too much.
It’s possible that the Hoosiers, winless in the Big Ten last season, won’t be able to reverse fortune in a big way in ’22. But that doesn’t mean all is lost. IU looks competent in Game 1 — that characteristic couldn’t always be used to describe the Hoosiers last season — but fall at home to Illinois. After back-to-back wins vs. Idaho and WKU, the Hoosiers fight Cincinnati on the road deep into the 3rd quarter. They do the same at Nebraska the following week, then hold a lead midway through the 4th at Homecoming vs. Michigan a week later. The wins don’t come, but IU isn’t getting throttled like the last 4 games last season, when its average margin of loss was more than 4 touchdowns per game.
The outcomes start to reverse in the second half of the season, when IU beats Rutgers and Penn State in consecutive weeks — that’s 2 straight home victories against the Nittany Lions — getting to 4 victories. Indiana stalls out there, perhaps leaving many to feel like the Hoosiers missed too many opportunities. But upon refection, the season had enough successes to make many fans believers again in Allen and Co.
Purdue = 6
Allen has been ultra secretive during camp, closing access off to media and the public.
Many speculate it’s a bad thing, a signal that the Hoosiers aren’t making any progress after the ugliness of ’21. But those reports are wrong. Instead, the Hoosiers answer many of their questions, finding playmakers on the offensive side like Shivers and Williams and wide receivers Javon Swinton and DJ Matthews. The defense, led by new coordinator Chad Wilt, returns to its play-making ways of 2020, with Mullen back to his First-Team All-Big Ten form and linebacker Cam Jones picking up where Micah McFadden had left off.
The Hoosiers start 3-0 — Bazelak is a composed leader and consistent, unlike the carousel of QBs IU deployed last season — then get wins vs. Maryland and at Rutgers to get to 5. But they need to beat Purdue for Win No. 6 and a trip back to the postseason.
In the 3rd quarter, Matthews provides the home crowd with a jolt of energy with a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, bringing the Hoosiers within a score. Then in the 4th, Williams carves up the Boilermakers’ defense, which has been on the field way too long, on a 30-yard scramble to give IU the lead. And then Mullen picks off Purdue QB Aidan O’Connell at the goal line in the final minute, giving the Hoosiers their 6th win and keeping the Boilermakers’ from No. 10.
Even the most diehard Indiana fans won’t predict the Hoosiers to make a major bounce-back this season.
But what if everything goes right?
Bazelak, the Missouri transfer, locks down the starting QB spot, and Williams proves to be a great change-up as the backup. Shivers and fellow transfer Josh Henderson (North Carolina) are a dynamic 1-2 out of the backfield. Matthews, who missed last season with a knee injury, proves to be the playmaker the Hoosiers thought they had when he transferred from Florida State a couple years ago. But he’s not the only WR to shine; former quarterback Donaven McCulley, who was thrust into being a starting QB last season, becomes an absolute stud at wide receiver, becoming a big-time, big-bodied target.
On defense, Jones and Mullen are great, and the secondary returns to form as one of the best in the Big Ten. And the defensive front, while without a star, plays great as a sum of its parts.
And IU wins. After beating Frost, the Hoosiers sit 4-1, with confidence growing around Bloomington. Michigan proves too much to handle on Homecoming, but then IU starts rolling, not only beating Maryland and Rutgers but doing so convincingly to run the record to 6-2. Penn State, which continues to hover around .500 for the third straight year, is ripe to be knocked off in Week 9, and the Hoosiers do so in a great defensive effort. Road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State are too much, but after Thanksgiving, Indiana welcomes in Purdue.
And IU is great. All the units click as the Hoosiers control the game from the opening kickoff, with McCulley catching 2 touchdowns, including one bomb. IU wins 35-21 to take back the Old Oaken Bucket, get win No. 8 and roll to a warm-weather bowl game.
Almost as soon as the Purdue game ended last season, Allen was signaling major changes, particularly at offensive coordinator.
As it turned out, the veteran coach had to replace his D-coordinator, too. But the moves — Bell is the new OC and Wilt the new DC — to his top lieutenants have the feel of a coach in need of calming the waters. But what if they don’t work?
Not only did IU lose last season, it often wasn’t even competitive, getting absolutely boat-raced in all but 2 of its 9 Big Ten games. Even Rutgers beat the Hoosiers by 35, and in Bloomington. Maybe it’s too much to ask IU to turn outcomes around immediately.
Indiana comes out flat vs. Illinois, dropping the opener in a disheartening fashion. And then after beating Idaho — is there a scenario in which the Hoosiers could lose Game 2? Seems unlikely — the Hoosiers are again mopped by Western Kentucky in Memorial Stadium. It leaves IU with a 1-2 record through the easiest portion of the schedule, leaving the Hoosiers mentally taxed and unable to recovery. The Hoosiers get a W vs. Rutgers, but that’s it.
Newcomers are nothing
Indiana’s success this season is going to be highly dependent on the ability of several newcomers, like Balezak, Shivers, Henderson and others on offense, and JH Tevis (Cal), LeDarrius Cox (Ole Miss), Bradley Jennings Jr. (Miami) and more on defense.
But few pan out.
Balezak struggles out of gate, slow to learn the system with a bunch of new skill players around him. In a loss to Illinois, he throws for a couple hundred yards, with 2 TDs but 2 interceptions. He looks fine vs. Idaho, but is pedestrian vs. Western Kentucky and worse against Cincinnati. By the Michigan game, he has more interceptions than touchdowns and has been inconsistent at best.
On defense, Indiana hit the transfer market looking for immediate-impact veterans, especially for its defensive front. But Jennings has had a history of injury, so he’s in and out of the lineup. And guys like Tevis and Cox, who are hoped to provide a pass rush that was non-existent last season, don’t come through.
So IU starts poorly, then beats either Maryland or Rutgers, before competing (but falling) vs. Penn State.
In ’21, the Hoosiers were forced to start 4 quarterbacks.
They’d like to not do that now.
But if Balezak doesn’t perform well early, then the Hoosiers might be an offensive mess. And it happens. He fails to master the offense, loses 3 of the first 4 games, and Allen is forced to start looking toward the future. Enter Williams, but while the youngster has talent, he is inexperienced, and playing him against Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State (and the like) stunts his growth, the same as it did with McCulley a year ago. He’s ineffective.
By the last fourth of the season, IU has rolled through 2 quarterbacks, neither with much success — sound familiar? — and it turns to Jack Tuttle once again. But he’s so limited, and IU churns out the same kind of production that it did at the end of last season, scoring only 24 points total in losses at Ohio State and Michigan State and vs. Purdue.
Indiana stares at not only a 2-win season but at the same quarterback problems it experienced before.
One side good
Indiana’s offense comes out on fire in the opening weeks, as the Hoosiers are slinging the ball all over the yard like they did with Michael Penix Jr. a couple years ago.
Balezak and Williams are a great, great pair, combining for 350 yards passing, 80 yards rushing and 4 TDs in each of Indiana’s first 3 games, all victories.
But there are cracks being hidden by the offense. The defense isn’t performing, and while that’s not been a huge issue vs. Illinois, Idaho and WKU, it’s about to become one. Like last season, the Hoosiers get virtually no pass rush out of their base defense, forcing Wilt to bring extra men and exposing the secondary to big plays. And IU gives them up in bunches vs. Cincinnati, Nebraska, Michigan and Maryland. Seriously, the Hoosiers can not stop anyone, with the 4 opponents scoring 6 times on plays of 50-yards or more.
IU is scoring points but it’s giving up more. It hits a peak vs. Penn State, when Indiana leads 28-21 entering the 4th quarter, as Matthews caught 2 Balezak TDs in the first half. But it all falls apart. The defense allows Sean Clifford to pass for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 4th quarter alone, as the Nittany Lions rally for a 42-35 win.
Allen isn’t on the hot seat.
But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
The coach exits camp saying all the right things, but there remains a cloud over the program as Indiana sets for its season-opener vs. Illinois. And the Hoosiers don’t look sharp, with pre-snap penalties and turnovers marring the game. It leaves IU fans — having seen the team for the first time since the end of last season — wondering whether they’ve practiced at all.
It’s similar the next week vs. Idaho, but the Hoosiers win. (They can’t lose to the Vandals, right?) But again the sloppiness returns vs. the Hilltoppers, with a trio of second-half turnovers that give the game to the visitors. It’s a total loss at Cincinnati, with the Bearcats’ defense holding IU to less than 150 yards of offense. Bazelak is benched in the second half, as Williams tries to jump-start the O but fails.
The Cornhuskers drill the Hoosiers in Lincoln and Michigan does the same in Bloomington. The Maryland/Rutgers games mark the last hope for IU — and maybe for Allen too — to right the ship and get the Hoosiers back in the right direction. But the Terrapins’ passing game exposes what IU thought was its defensive strength, the secondary, and hits for more than 400 yards in a 40-20 win. And Rutgers, which beat IU by 35 last season, only does so by 21 this year.
But yikes. It’s over. After falling to Purdue for the Bucket, IU is left looking for new leadership in the offseason.