Column: It’s no longer a football issue for Indiana

After Indiana football’s dreadful performance against No. 15 Penn State, it’s time for some hard truths about the program and its coaching staff.

It’s not a football issue for Indiana. It’s a money issue.

This started to become evident during the last month, as Indiana’s now-six-game losing streak grew. The games, themselves, never reached “rock bottom” level; IU was in all of those contests in the second half for some amount of time.

But as Indiana slogged through this game — with nine straight offensive possessions without a first down, and just 11 total first downs — it became increasingly hard to watch. Indiana was never in the game in the second half. It felt out of reach during the second quarter.

Bad moves

It’s hard to question that IU’s coaches made some baffling decisions that led to that ineptitude. Head coach Tom Allen has praised freshman running back Jaylin Lucas almost weekly, constantly emphasizing getting him more work in the offense. He didn’t touch the ball Saturday until halftime was under a minute away.

After a week spent creating mystery over who would start at quarterback, IU went with Jack Tuttle, who’d already announced his intention to enter the transfer portal. Connor Bazelak was “dinged up” and did not dress in uniform.

Tuttle flashed in some moments, with very limited opportunity behind an offensive line that offered more pass endangerment than pass protection. But once that blocking led to a shoulder injury for Tuttle, IU turned to true freshman Brendan Sorsby.

Redshirt sophomore Dexter Williams has been the presumed No. 3 quarterback this season. He has the mobility to create something out of broken plays, which happened often Saturday.

It’s hard to blame Sorsby for his rough outing. He’s had very limited exposure to college football, without a spring season to develop. And with this Indiana offensive line, even Patrick Mahomes would struggle. It didn’t go well for Sorsby, who went 3 for 6 for eight yards and an interception in five possessions at quarterback.

Williams gave the Hoosiers a clear spark when he entered in the third quarter. Suddenly, IU was able to move the ball again. He made plays with his legs. He even led Indiana back to paydirt — a small consolation prize for a battle lost far earlier. In four possessions, Williams threw for 41 yards on a 4-of-11 line with two interceptions, and he ran for 24 yards on four attempts.

There have been several instances (or, in some cases, prolonged stretches) throughout this season where Indiana’s coaching staff misused some players or lacked a necessary grasp on the personnel it’s working with.

This was the most egregious case. The most glaringly obvious case. And the most costly case.

When Sorsby entered the game, Penn State led 21-7. The Nittany Lions were dominating, but the game was still reasonably close. While the offense stalled with Sorsby at the helm for around one full quarter, PSU grew its lead to 31-7.

Sorsby and Williams came into IU with similar recruiting ratings, and Allen said they were at similar levels entering this game. He didn’t offer a clear explanation for the decision to go with Sorsby over Williams.

“To me, they’re both very equal. Dexter has been here longer. At the same time, moving forward, to me, those guys are going to be battling it out. I liked what I saw from Dexter,” Allen said. “You’d like to be able to have both those guys be developed in our program and continue to compete because I think they have both have a bright future.”

Indiana University, IU Football Coach Tom Allen Agree to Terms on New Seven-Year Contract - Indiana University Athletics
Photo credit – IU Athletics

Dollars and cents

So back to the initial point. It’s no longer a football issue. Indiana is putting a bad product out on the field — one that appears to be getting worse. The Hoosiers are at serious risk of recording only one Big Ten win over two seasons. IU football has different standards than schools like Michigan and Ohio State, but that on-field performance would put most Power Five coaches in jeopardy.

It’s not a football issue. It’s money.

Per IndyStar, IU would owe Tom Allen $25.5 million if it fired him without cause before December 1. That number would drop to $20.8 million on December 1, 2023. The buyout doesn’t reach a realistic figure until December 1, 2024, when it falls to just under $8 million.

You never know, but things are more likely to get even worse for IU’s program before things improve.

In this transfer portal era, it would not be surprising to see some of IU’s more talented players explore their options and try to find a less desolate situation. Most Power Five programs meet that criteria. And plenty could offer more lucrative NIL opportunities for football players.

With Allen’s buyout likely unmanageable for a few years, only so much can change for Indiana football.

He could rearrange his staff some more, but there are clear talent gaps between Indiana and most of the Big Ten right now. Assistant coaching changes can only accomplish so much in the short term without improvements in recruiting (relative to the rest of the conference) and, particularly, in player development. And that doesn’t happen overnight.

How IU got here

In some ways, it’s always about money. Most decisions in college sports are driven by money, and particularly in football. Whether it’s investment in facilities, recruiting resources, hiring, or resetting, money is the common denominator.

IU gave Allen this contract extension after one of the brightest two-year runs in program history. IU’s 8-5 season in 2019 showed significant progress, and the 6-2 2020 season will live on in IU lore. During that COVID-impacted season, the Hoosiers snapped long losing streaks against Penn State and Michigan, pushed Ohio State to the brink, and earned their first top-10 ranking in over 50 years.

That success endeared the Hoosiers to so many fans who craved any sort of gridiron success for years. But 2021 and 2022 have undone nearly all of the goodwill built up from those seasons.

When Allen took over as head coach ahead of the Foster Farms Bowl in 2016, he inherited as stable an organization as any IU football coach could reasonably expect. The program was trending in the right direction long-term, after Kevin Wilson led it to two straight bowl games, and Allen kept IU at the point of at least competing for bowls in his first two seasons.

He needed time to craft the program to his liking, and to get his own recruits into his system. That patience appeared to pay dividends in 2019-20.

But the program has now regressed beyond where it was when Allen started. Indiana is not close to competing for bowl games.

The impact of regression

Allen hit on a few key staff decisions — namely hiring Kalen DeBoer as offensive coordinator and promoting Kane Wommack to defensive coordinator — to set up those winning years. But through his tenure, he’s whiffed on more hires than he’s hit on. And a series of misses has led the program to the corner it’s backed into.

There are many reasons why recruits choose certain schools, and why some programs are better fits than others for certain players. Scholarships to major universities are a serious draw for so many, presenting major opportunities beyond football. Players would still come to Indiana, no matter what.

But it’s not hard to imagine what a touted recruit would think after watching Indiana’s team and coaching staff get manhandled Saturday.

Penn State is obviously talented, and the Nittany Lions would’ve left disappointed if Indiana kept the game close. But even accounting for the talent disparity, IU’s performance left little doubt about how far the program has fallen in the past two years.

Indiana had a bye week before this game. Teams use that period to self-evaluate in ways they can’t during normal game weeks, but the Hoosiers had extra time to get ready for this game. And they responded with one of their ugliest games of Allen’s tenure.

Earlier this week, I wrote that nobody could accuse the Hoosiers of failing to exhaust all of their options if they made a quarterback change — but that could be the only credit Indiana gets.

That statement holds up. And, in fairness, going with Tuttle seemed like a good decision until his injury.

But it’s becoming clear that many things this program is doing are not working, both short and long-term. IU has to change something.

That change could take several different forms. But when IU considers any options, it can’t be a football issue. It’s a money issue.

Note: We’ve removed a line from the story about Connor Bazelak not being on the sideline during the game. During his press conference on Monday, Tom Allen clarified that Bazelak was in the press box with offensive staff during the game, which is normal for quarterbacks who don’t dress.

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