At first glance, I wondered what was wrong with Indiana’s offense. When you only see a handful of plays and look at the final score, it’s easy to wonder if Kalen DeBoer really did much different in Indiana’s season-opening game against Ball State.
The Hoosiers posted a 34-24 victory over the Cardinals in Indianapolis, giving me a lukewarm feeling after believing the right coordinator was in place to revamp a vanilla-flavored offense. Michael Penix Jr.’s numbers were fine for a first outing, but they weren’t overly impressive.
When I went back and watch the first quarter, my mind didn’t change much. It looked like DeBoer’s offense was essentially an extension of the run game. There were a lot of dink-and-dunk passes, allowing IU’s athletes to catch the ball in space and go one-on-one with Ball State defenders. That works against a MAC team, but good luck trying to out-athlete the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
I was unimpressed.
Then I watched the rest of the game, paid attention to the play-calling and remembered what Indiana’s offense looked like in the past. It took me until halftime to realize that DeBoer is exactly the kind of guy Tom Allen needs calling the shots.
Saturday’s win still wasn’t the kind of game you expected to see out of an Indiana team with a loaded running back room, a good dual-threat quarterback and a plethora of skilled and experienced wide receivers. Penix made a few freshman mistakes in his first career start. Sure-handed receivers Whop Philyor, Nick Westbrook and Ty Fryfogle dropped passes. Stevie Scott struggled to pick up any yardage. Those things need to be cleaned up, but are hardly reason for panic after one game.
Execution was far from perfect.
DeBoer, though? To channel my Midwestern roots, he called himself a game.
Indiana used a good portion of that first quarter to get Penix comfortable with his new role. Screen passes and short routes were used to the freshman a few early completions, building his confidence. With about three minutes left in the first quarter, DeBoer opened up the playbook, allowing Penix to launch a ball deep down the field to Westbrook.
Boom, 75-yard touchdown.
— Dustin Schutte (@SchutteCFB) August 31, 2019
Those were the plays DeBoer’s predecessor, Mike DeBord, were afraid to call. His hesitation to stretch the field and utilize the talent at the skill positions is what frustrated so many in Bloomington. And there was DeBoer, drawing up a deep shot fairly early in the game — Penix’s first as the starter.
Penix didn’t unleash after that bomb, he followed it up with two interceptions on back-to-back possessions, but the confidence DeBoer had in him never wavered. The redshirt freshman continued to throw confidently down the middle of the field, hitting guys for big chunks of yards throughout the game. The intermediate passing attack — a nonexistent concept until Saturday — was prominent. The Hoosiers finished the day with 13 passing plays of 10 yards or more, the fourth-best total in the B1G behind Penn State (15), Purdue and Rutgers (both at 14).
Penix finished the day completing 24-of-40 passes for 326 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, but the numbers would’ve been better if not for the drops. He was also the team’s leading rusher, tallying 67 yards on seven carries.
Indiana ended the game with 474 total yards, 326 through the air and 148 on the ground.
There was another series that really showed me how good DeBoer is at this whole play-calling thing. In the middle of the third quarter with a 23-17 advantage, Penix threw back-to-back passes on 1st and 2nd down, both of which fell incomplete. On 3rd-and-10, a sure passing down, DeBoer dialed up a designed quarterback run up the gut, which resulted in a 15-yard pickup for Penix and a first down.
It’s not always the 75-yard touchdown pass that we can appreciate. That’s knowing the defense, knowing your players and knowing how to mix things up.
No, Indiana didn’t exactly bludgeon Ball State the way we thought it might. Saturday was far from the smoothest performance the Hoosiers could’ve provided. But the signs of change are there, and it’s exactly the kind of jolt IU needs.
I had to watch Saturday’s game twice to see it, but now I understand why Allen brought DeBoer, his expertise and bag of tricks to Bloomington. If you’re still not sure, watch the game one more time.
You’ll see it, too.