Photo by Mike Schumann / The Daily Hoosier

Checking in: Two bright spots, two areas for improvement for IU football at bye week

Indiana football’s season hasn’t gone according to plan.

At the bye week — two-thirds of the way through the schedule — IU sits at 3-5, 1-4 in Big Ten play. The Hoosiers have dropped five straight games after pulling out three wins in a row to start the season. Even this deep into the season, the team has more questions than answers — and the answers it has have not all been positive.

After the Rutgers loss, we took a big-picture look at where the program stands after a tumultuous two-season stretch. Without rehashing too much of those numbers, let’s look at where this IU team is this season: some of the biggest positives, and some of the biggest things that need to improve.

Offensive MVP: Cam Camper

As problematic as Indiana’s offense has been for much of this season, Camper has been a legitimate bright spot. Statistically, he’s been one of the best receivers in the Big Ten.

Camper ranks 32nd in the country and fifth in the Big Ten with 81.3 yards per game. He’s also tied for 18th in the nation and fourth in the conference with 6.6 receptions per game. He missed one game with an illness, and his absence was noticeable when IU lost at Nebraska.

Camper has been a do-it-all receiver for Indiana this year. For an offense that likes to spread the ball around and often have six or more players record receptions in a game, quarterback Connor Bazelak certainly leans on Camper. He’s made plays out of very little at times on screens and short passes, displayed good route-running and ball skills in the intermediate passing game, and won some battles with defensive backs on deep balls.

Simply put, Camper has been a revelation for the Hoosiers this year. The junior college transfer quickly stood out, with 11 catches for 156 yards against Illinois. IU’s offense has taken its lumps this year, but many of its brightest moments this season involve Camper.

Defensive MVP: Aaron Casey

Photo credit – IU Athletics

Though freshman standout Dasan McCullough has a good case, Casey has played an even more vital role on the IU defense this year.

Casey is tied for 24th in the country and third in the Big Ten with nine tackles for loss. He also leads IU with 66 tackles, which is 32nd in the nation and third in the conference.

His 78.2 rating on Pro Football Focus — tied for 56th in the country among linebackers and sixth in the Big Ten — reflects how well he’s played. PFF rates him as the top pass-rushing linebacker in the conference.

He’s stepped up at critical points for IU, both in individual games and in the season at large.  When the Hoosiers lost Cam Jones for an extended period, they lost a senior leader who was playing at an All-American level. Jones has still been leading the team from the sideline, but his on-field voice was a big part of Indiana’s defense.

While Casey hasn’t single-handedly filled that void, he had to adjust within IU’s scheme after the injury as IU moved him from Mike to stinger, where Jones played. And he handled that transition smoothly, with two of his best games of the season against Michigan and Maryland.

Indiana’s defense hasn’t been perfect, but the unit typically gives the team a chance win games, or at least keep things close. And Casey is one of the main reasons for that.

Offensive need for improvement: Quarterback play

Photo credit – IU Athletics

You could come up with a variety of adjectives to describe Bazelak’s season so far. Offensive coordinator Walt Bell asks as much from Bazelak as anyone in the country: the junior attempts 47.4 passes per game, which is a narrow second in the nation.

But the returns on that big workload have simply not been very good. Bazelak ranks 13th in the Big Ten in passer rating (107.1) and completion percentage (54.9), and last in yards per attempt (5.5). He’s thrown nine interceptions, more than any other Big Ten quarterback this year and tied for fourth-most in the country.

It’s not all on Bazelak, in fairness. He’s repeatedly stood up for his offensive line in press conferences — as any quarterback should — but the blocking has been extremely poor for most of the season. The line has put Bazelak in a lot of bad situations. Additionally, IU’s receivers have dropped many passes that made some of those bad situations worse.

But Indiana’s offensive struggles boil down to quarterback play more than anything else. Bazelak has missed plenty of throws he should be hitting, he offers very little mobility to extend plays outside the pocket, and his decision-making has been poor at times.

On the few occasions this year when the offense has had a rhythm, Bazelak has been solid. He completed 10 straight passes to start the game at Rutgers, and he memorably led a game-winning drive in the waning minutes against Illinois.

But those moments have been far too fleeting for Indiana to have a chance to win. Sitting Bazelak for Jack Tuttle or Dexter Williams may not make things better — the Missouri transfer did beat out Tuttle for the job in the offseason, and Tuttle hasn’t exactly lit it up in his previous opportunities for IU. Williams would offer mobility, but is still young and growing. Throwing him into the fire now could hurt his long-term development.

But something has to change, whether that’s Bazelak simply cleaning things up and cutting down on mistakes, or trying another option. Indiana’s offense, with Bazelak playing the way he has, is one of the worst in the country. If nothing changes, it won’t get any better.

Defensive need for improvement: Tackling

Head coach Tom Allen has called the lack of takeaways one of the biggest problems with his defense this season. And while the Hoosiers aren’t the turnover-inducing menaces they were in 2020, Indiana has still made those plays this season.

Yes, it’s been more of an issue recently, with no takeaways in the last two weeks and just one in the last three. But IU has 10 takeaways this season — one more than it had in 2021. That mark is tied for ninth in the Big Ten, and just two away from being in the top half of the conference.

Could IU be making more of those plays? Sure. The defense has dropped some interceptions, failed to recover fumbles, and missed other opportunities.

But that is not as big an issue for the defense as missed tackles have been. That’s another area Allen has keyed in on. There have been so many big plays this season by IU opponents made possible by flat-out misses on plays the Hoosiers should make. Maryland took the lead and put the game away pretty much exclusively on the ground, and Indiana missed several chances to make a play. Michigan’s Blake Corum and Illinois’ Chase Brown — two of the best tailbacks in the country, in fairness — forced many whiffs that led to big runs.

It’s not getting any easier for IU, with Penn State and Ohio State coming up after the bye. The defense has kept the Hoosiers in most of its games this season — it’s clear that the biggest issues are on offense. And IU’s offense hasn’t made it easy on the defense, with several prolonged stretches of ineffectiveness keeping the defense on the field for far too long.

But finishing off some of those missed chances could have been the difference in some of those close losses, and it’s the biggest thing IU has to clean up on defense.

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