Indiana football: The good, the bad and ugly through first 3 games
Indiana is already halfway back to bowl eligibility, its biggest goal coming into the season after a tumultuous 2021.
Although the road gets tougher with the final non-conference game at Cincinnati on Saturday, maybe the Hoosiers can start to aim a little higher. They’re 3-0, having found ways to win in each of their first 3 weeks to the season.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly for the Hoosiers:
For a team that had little reason to be confident before the season — it had lost 8 straight games — the Hoosiers are playing with an exceedingly high confidence level. The evidence is in the results: IU is 3-0, having battled back in each of its games to pull out close victories.
While they’ve not always been pretty, with disjointed starts and uneven performances, the Hoosiers are finishers. They took their final lead with 23 seconds left in the opener vs. Illinois, driving 75 yards for a touchdown. In Game 2 against Idaho, they rallied after trailing 10-0, blasting the Vandals for 29 points in the 1st 15:05 after halftime. Saturday vs. Western Kentucky, Indiana scored the game-tying 2-point conversion with 47 seconds left after a 75-yard touchdown drive. The Hoosiers won in overtime after blocking a field goal, then lining up a 51-yard game-winner for senior Charles Campbell.
Challenges lie ahead, like at Cincinnati on Saturday, but the Hoosiers will go in thinking they’re good enough to win.
Coach Tom Allen hit the transfer portal hard during the offseason, hoping that newcomers could help for a quick turnaround after a disastrous 2021.
Well, it’s worked so far.
Quarterback Connor Bazelak (Missouri) has passed for 891 yards, 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, but more critically has been dialed in at crunch time. Shaun Shivers (Auburn) has a team-high 241 yards and 2 touchdowns, and fellow running back Josh Henderson (North Carolina) has 130 yards and a couple scores. Wide receiver Cam Camper (Trinity CC) has a team-best 23 receptions for 292 yards and a touchdown. Linebacker Bradley Jennings Jr. (Miami Hurricanes) has 10 tackles and a sack, while JH Tevis (Cal) has recorded 9 tackles, including a couple for loss.
Where would Indiana be without them? Certainly not 3-0.
Maybe one of Indiana’s biggest question marks before the season was where it’d get pressure on the defense.
It was a valid one, considering the Hoosiers didn’t create as much as desired last season, only 17 sacks, with the most (6.5) coming from departed All-Big Ten linebacker Micah McFadden. But through 3 games, Indiana has shown it can get after the quarterback, with 8 sacks to put them on pace for 32 for the season.
Freshman linebacker Dasan McCullough has been terrific, settling in the way you’d hope a 4-star prospect would. The 230-pounder from Bloomington South has a team-high 3 sacks and is 1 of 7 Hoosiers who have at least a half sack, as Indiana has brought pressure from multiple places.
The Hoosiers have a veteran offensive line, but it’s not playing well. And it’s not as if IU has the depth to make sweeping changes in its personnel.
Indiana has dealt with a couple injuries, too. Right tackle Matthew Bedford is out for the season with a knee injury, although veteran Tim Weaver has filled in well. And Saturday vs. WKU, center Zach Carpenter was a late scratch and the backup was also injured, leaving 3rd-stringer Caleb Murphy, who is playing his 3rd position in 3 years in Bloomington.
Indiana has managed to get by in the first 3 games, but those contests came against seemingly lesser competition — against a team expected to finish in the lower half of the Big Ten West, an FCS school and a program in Conference USA. The line has allowed Bazelak to be under duress too frequently and given up 4 sacks, but more critically it isn’t creating enough space for a running game that has been only OK.
The Hoosiers are averaging 130 yards yards per game at an average of 4 yards per carry, but the statistics are bloated by the 239 yards Indiana had against Idaho, an opponent it should beat up at the line of scrimmage. There’s warranted concern, however, about what will happen at the line vs. bigger, more physical opponents in the Big Ten East.
While Indiana has been a great finisher, it’s not been a great starter. And at some point, maybe soon, the Hoosiers’ inability to put together a 60-minute game will result in a loss.
What’s been the issue? It’s hard to put a finger on one thing. Bazelak has been ineffective early in games, sometimes missing wildly on open receivers. The running game hasn’t been able to get going early. And the result of those has been an offense that stalls out or misses opportunities to put points on the board.
The Hoosiers rank 112th nationally (out of 131 FBS teams) in red zone efficiency, having scored only 10 times in 14 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. It gets worse when looking at touchdowns, with Indiana scoring only 6 TDs for a rate of 42.9%, which is 120th nationally.