Indiana football: Way-too-early look at 2022
In a word, the 2021 season was a disaster.
Ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP Poll, Indiana had huge expectations for the season, hoping that it could capitalize on the momentum built from the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and compete once again at the top of the Big Ten East. Maybe it could break into the league championship game or make the Rose Bowl. But immediately at the start of the season, the Hoosiers showed there were serious flaws in their plan.
IU was a mess in a season-opening loss at Iowa, showed only a minimum of pulse in the next 3 weeks — it won games vs. Idaho and Western Kentucky — and once the Big Ten started again, the season came crashing down. The Hoosiers not only couldn’t win, but they could barely compete. Only 2 of IU’s 9 Big Ten losses came by a possession; the average margin of loss in the other 7 games was a woeful 30.6 points.
Injuries played a part. During the season, coach Tom Allen said that 30 players missed time due to injuries, including 18 that were season-ending problems. Perhaps not all of those were to significant players, but some were: Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. yet again missed a significant portion of the season, as did other skill position players including slot receiver DJ Matthews. And IU’s secondary, which had been a strength in previous years, was besieged by injuries, leaving a mix-and-match group that never gelled.
Now, Allen is charged with finding answers, including weaving in new offensive and defensive coordinators, to try to get Indiana back on track in 2022.
What worked in 2021
As a result, Allen has a lot to try to fix in only an off-season, from finding a quarterback to rediscovering an offensive scheme to reviving a defense that had once been the lynchpin of the program, and doing those things with new coordinators.
In 2021, the Hoosiers had very little to rely on, with a defense that was no longer able to put the opponent in undesirable positions and an offense that lost its penchant for big plays. They were left with only inconsistency, and it’s why IU lost its final 7 games, most of them in blowout fashion.
Indiana had a few solid individual performers: Linebacker Micah McFadden was outstanding once again, finishing the season with 77 tackles, 15.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks, and he forced a couple fumbles and recovered one. Tight end Peyton Hendershot returned to his previous form, with a team-high-tying 46 receptions and 4 touchdowns.
But with only 2 victories, none against Power 5 opponents, it’s hard to land on too many positives.
What didn’t work in 2021
It’s difficult to pinpoint the Hoosiers’ biggest issue.
There were a lot of big ones.
There were a bunch of small ones, too.
Indiana had a quarterback problem, as it played 4 during the season with none having any sort of consistency or effectiveness. Even before he was injured, Penix struggled, looking rusty after suffering his second ACL injury toward the end of last year and finishing with 7 interceptions in the 5 games before he hurt his shoulder, almost matching the previous total for his career. Jack Tuttle has limitations, as backup QBs do, but after he was injured, his experience was missed. Freshman Donaven McCulley might be a long-term answer, but was thrown in too quickly.
Because of the quarterback inconsistencies, Indiana, which lived off big plays the year before, couldn’t hit on them in 2021. Indiana finished 10th in the Big Ten in passing, averaging only 175 yards per game. And adding to the offensive problems, IU was worse on the ground, only 12th in the Big Ten with a 114 average. It didn’t help IU that its depth was sapped at running back, with Sampson James transferring before the start of the season and Tim Baldwin Jr. during it. All told, the Hoosiers’ offense finished at dead last in the conference, averaging less than 290 yards per game.
A day after Indiana was drilled by Purdue for the Old Oaken Bucket, offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan was fired, as Allen showed his desire to immediately start to find a cure for the Hoosiers’ scoring woes. He hired Walt Bell, the former head coach at UMass, to do the job.
But offense wasn’t only that side of the ball that had issues.
In 2020, Indiana’s defense collected 20 turnovers in only 7 regular-season games, but they couldn’t find a way to replicate that in ’21. Instead, in their 12 games, the Hoosiers had only 9 takeaways, with 5 interceptions and 4 fumble recoveries. The defense ranked last in points per game allowed (33.3) and 10th in yardage allowed (383.8). And then coordinator Charlton Warren left after one season for a co-coordinator position at North Carolina. IU moved quickly to replace Warren, picking away Minnesota assistant Chad Wilt to fill the role.
But worst of all, despite Allen’s mantra — “Love Each Other” — the Hoosiers seemed a fractured bunch this season, probably never more so than in a home loss to Rutgers, which not only beat them in Memorial Stadium, but embarrassed them. Indiana was whipped 38-3 by the Scarlet Knights, in a performance in which the Hoosiers appeared to lose interest.
Indiana hopes it has found an answer at quarterback.
Earlier this month, Allen pulled former Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak out of the transfer portal, giving IU instant credibility at football’s most critical position. And it’s a good thing too, because the Hoosiers’ prospects there were questionable, to say the least.
Until Bazelak’s announcement — he’s enrolled in Bloomington for the spring — the Hoosiers had been stung by bad QB news: Penix transferred to Washington, where he will rejoin former IU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer. And 2022 commitment Josh Hoover flipped to Texas Christian before signing day.
But Bazelak was solid in 2 seasons at Mizzou, throwing for 5,058 yards with 23 touchdowns (plus 2 rushing scores) and 17 interceptions. He was the SEC co-freshman of the year in 2020.
IU also has McCulley, a talented but raw sophomore-to-be. IU wanted to be able to ease the former 4-star recruit in as the starter, not fast-track him to the field, but injuries forced it to do the latter last season. It might have been to McCulley’s detriment. The dual-threat QB completed less than 43 percent of his pass attempts while throwing for 475 yards with 2 touchdowns, plus 2 more rushing TDs, and 2 interceptions.
The Hoosiers will deal with natural attrition, like graduating senior McFadden who will move on to the NFL, and others who have used up their eligibly, or at least not chosen to take their extra pandemic season.
But the loses that leave fans wondering about the health of the program are the ones in the transfer portal, where the Hoosiers have seen at least a dozen departures since the start of the season, including several starters, including Penix, nickel back Reese Taylor and wide receiver Miles Marshall.
It’s mostly on the defensive side where Indiana can hope that its veterans can lead the Hoosiers to a quick rejuvenation.
The secondary will come back nearly intact, thanks in large part to former All-America cornerback Tiawan Mullen’s decision to return. The senior had a sub-par season, by his standards, in 2021, in large part due to injuries that put him in and out of the lineup. But with him and safety Devon Matthews both announcing returns, along with veteran cornerback Jaylin Williams, it boosts up a secondary that had been excellent 2 seasons ago.
Linebacker Cam Jones should take over as the leader of the defense, in place of the graduating McFadden, and he’ll have help from what was a deep front 4, led by end Ryder Anderson, who had 3.5 sacks last season, and tackle Demarcus Elliott.
On offense, many eyes will be on the line, which needs a big improvement after struggling, particularly in run blocking, last season. It returns as many as 3 — maybe 4 — offensive linemen, including tackle Matthew Bedford. Otherwise, Indiana is going to have a lot of new faces at skill positions on offense.
Potentially the biggest recruit comes via the transfer portal, where IU has picked up a commitment from running back Shaun Shivers, who played previously at Auburn, where the former 4-star prospect gained more than 1,000 yards during his 4 seasons. Allen has also added 3 previous 3-star defensive linemen, including LeDarrius Cox and Patrick Lucas, both from Ole Miss, and edge rusher JH Tevis from Cal. It’s part of the reason why 247sports has Indiana as its 5th most productive program in the transfer portal.
The Hoosiers put together a solid ’22 high school class as well, ranking No. 17 in the country and fourth in the Big Ten, per 247Sports. Edge rusher Dasan McCullough might be able to start from Day 1, as could wide receiver Omar Cooper. Both are good — 4-star prospects — and also come at positions of need for the Hoosiers.