Indiana football: 5 Tom Allen decisions that have made a huge difference
Tom Allen has engineered one of the biggest surprises in college football this season, as his Hoosiers are 6-1 after their win at then-No. 16 Wisconsin on Saturday.
It was Indiana’s third win over a ranked opponent this season, jumping it to No. 8 in the latest AP Top 25 poll.
Allen, who is now among the favorites for national coach of the year awards, has made a lot of solid decisions in 2020. Let’s take a look at the top 5.
Nipping the Lions
Allen has a notecard in his office that reminds him of the statistical improbability of the Hoosiers’ season-opening win over Penn State.
After Indiana turned the ball over on downs deep in its own territory trailing 21-20 with less than 2 minutes left, the Hoosiers had less than a tenth of a percent chance to win the game, according to ESPN’s win probability index.
But Allen made a series of critical decisions — maybe they were longshots, but many coaches wouldn’t have even attempted them — that ended up turning the game in Indiana’s favor. First, Allen instructed his defense to let Penn State score, which the Nittany Lions obliged by running the ball in on one play in only 5 seconds. The score extended PSU’s lead, but at an 8-point margin it was still a one-possession game.
After IU tied the game with a touchdown and 2-point conversion with 22 seconds left, Allen hit the right buttons again in overtime. PSU scored first, taking a 7-point lead. But IU quickly responded, with Michael Penix Jr. hitting all 3 of his passes, the last a 9-yarder to Whop Philyor for the TD. In the mist of the drive, Allen was thinking ahead, at one point seeming to communicate with a nearby assistant that he would consider going for 2.
Then, a moment after Penix’s score, there was no hesitation: Allen had made his choice. Following timeouts by both teams, Allen put the ball in the hands of Penix, allowing the versatile quarterback to make his own decision, and the QB’s dive to the pylon gave IU 2 points and the victory.
Naming a starter
Since naming Penix the starter before the 2019 season, Allen has stuck by his talented young quarterback.
Even after he was injured last season — and Peyton Ramsey played so well in relief — it was known that Penix would be the long-term answer under center. So when the 2019 season ended, Rasmey had a decision to make, either return to likely be Penix’s backup or find a starting job elsewhere. Rasmey chose the latter, clearing space for Allen’s preferred starter in Penix.
It has worked well for all parties. Ramsey helped Northwestern win the Big Ten West as its starting quarterback, while Penix guided IU to a 5-1 start before his season was ended by a torn ACL a week ago vs. Maryland.
Penix’s injury has created an unusual potential scenario for a Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where his two 2019 backups could square off. If IU is the East representative, then 2019 opening day No. 3, Jack Tuttle, would face No. 2 Ramsey in the title game, with the man who beat out both of them on the sideline.
Continuing the offense
Shortly after the calendar turned to 2020, Allen decided to stick with a familiar formula on offense.
The head coach promoted Nick Sheridan to offensive coordinator, after he had served as the tight ends coach in 2019 and the quarterbacks coach in 2017 and 2018. Allen needed a replacement for Kalen DeBoer, who had led the Hoosiers to one of their best statistical seasons in program history in 2019 but had departed to be the head coach at Fresno State.
Sheridan wasn’t necessarily a sure thing.
Only 10 years earlier, he had been the quarterbacks coach at his alma mater, Saline High School in Michigan. He was a graduate assistant at Tennessee until 2016, looking for a full-time job, when Allen hired him away to be the Hoosiers’ QB coach. In only 3 years, Sheridan had shown Allen enough for the head coach to trust him with the keys to the offense.
Clearly, it was a good choice. The Hoosiers have the Big Ten’s third-highest scoring offense, averaging 30.1 points per game.
Through 2 weeks this season, Indiana was one of the most penalized teams in the Big Ten, with 15 accepted flags for 155 yards.
It was downright ugly against Rutgers in Week 2, when the Hoosiers drew 11 penalties for 119 yards, yet they overcame the issues to roll to their second straight win. The most disturbing part was that the flag-fest continued a trend from the previous season, when Indiana was dead last in the Big Ten in penalties, both in number per game (6.8) and yards per game (63.8).
But after the first 2 weeks, Indiana has committed only 14 penalties across the next 5 games, bringing its per-game average down to 4.1, the lowest rate in the Big Ten.
Allen put a heavy emphasis on the issue after the Rutgers game, telling his radio show listeners that those who had committed unsportsmanlike penalties were subject to extra running in practice. And he had defensive linemen run through pass-rush drills while avoiding contact with a quarterback’s head, because they’d picked up too many roughing penalties.
It’s paid off.
It’s not as if the Hoosiers haven’t had to overcome adversity this season.
IU has had multiple players out for extended time, most notably Penix and starting defensive back Marcelino Ball, who tore his ACL in the preseason. But left tackle Caleb Jones, left guard Mike Katic and defensive tackle Alfred Bryant also have missed time, as have backup linebackers Cam Jones and Thomas Allen, the coach’s son. Backup running back Sampson James has missed games, and reserve DB Raheem Layne has been out all season.
Allen hasn’t wavered. He’s shown unshakeable confidence in the next man, like with Tuttle. The backup QB played like an experienced veteran in his first start, throwing for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns in Indiana’s win at Wisconsin.