Indiana missed several key players during its loss to No. 4 Michigan, including cornerback Jaylin Williams, wide receiver D.J. Matthews, and tight end AJ Barner.
But perhaps the biggest absence was linebacker Cam Jones. He suffered a foot injury during the Nebraska game, though he didn’t come out of the game or limp off noticeably.
IU head coach Tom Allen after the Michigan game said the team received word of his status on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s going to be several weeks at minimum,” Allen said. “Cam is a special player. (It’s hard) to just plug another guy in there and not have a drop-off due to his level of play that he has been playing at. At the same time, we have to adjust. We have to figure it out.”
Allen said he felt Jones was playing at an All-American level before his injury. Entering Saturday’s game, Jones led the Big Ten and ranked 10th in the country with 54 tackles.
He was tied for 54th in the country, and fourth in the Big Ten, among linebackers in PFF grade. He grades much higher in run defense specifically, however, ranking sixth in the country and first in the conference.
So statistically, Allen has a case.
With Jones out, Aaron Casey shifted to the stinger linebacker spot to replace him. Bradley Jennings came in as the Mike, where Jones typically plays. Allen praised Jennings’ play in the elevated role. He made several big plays throughout the game, with a team-high 13 tackles, including one tackle for loss, and a pass breakup that Devon Matthews intercepted after Jennings tipped it in the air.
“I thought Bradley stepped up,” Allen said. “(He) did some good things. I think it’s a great chance for him to grow and learn.”
Jennings wasn’t used to playing alongside Casey, as they previously both played Mike. They had all week to prepare for this, though, and that time allowed them to get used to the new situation.
“This week we were just communicating more, we just have to talk because we haven’t been getting reps with each other, we both played Mike until this week,” Jennings said. “But the communication was there. We’ve always had a good bond. When we came out, it was good.”
And on top of losing one of their best players in Jones, the Hoosiers lost the unquestioned leader of their defense. Jones is vocal, rallying his teammates in big situations and encouraging them to push forward through tough moments.
Jennings said the entire defense had to step up and lead on the field with Jones out. Jones was still talking to his teammates on the bench, so his voice wasn’t completely absent.
“Only thing that’s really different (was) his physical presence. He was just really encouraging the guys, still, even though he’s not out there on the field with us,” Casey said. “It just takes a little different role when we’re out there on the field, just because he’s our leader, he’s that sort of guy that takes control of everything. Without that, other guys like me and (Jennings) stepped up a lot.”
This was an especially difficult game for which to not have Jones available, as Michigan is one of the top rushing teams in the country.
But nonetheless, Indiana picked up the slack on run defense. Wolverines standout running back Blake Corum posted 124 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries — but after his 50-yard rush on his first attempt of the game, IU held Corum to just over three yards per carry. And the Hoosiers didn’t provide sophomore Donovan Edwards much space to run.
IU did slip a bit in run defense in the second half compared to the first, but in all, it was a solid outing for the run defense.
“At the beginning of the game, the (run) fits were really sound,” Casey said. “Towards the end, second half, some guys were out of place, and it took a toll on us.”
From the description of Jones’ injury, IU will assuredly be without him against Maryland next week, and potentially longer than that. Indiana’s defense held up reasonably well against a high-caliber opponent, but the Hoosiers will have to keep that up for however long Jones is out.
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