COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Heading into a bye week, one thing is clear about the 2023 Indiana Hoosiers offense.
Change is needed.
IU is returning to Bloomington after a complete thumping, 44-17, against Maryland at SECU Stadium Saturday. And don’t let those 17 points deceive you: 14 came in the fourth quarter, after a quarterback change, when the game was already well out of reach.
The Hoosiers (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) are averaging 15.75 points per game against FBS opponents this season. Dating back to the start of the 2022 season, Walt Bell’s first as IU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the offense is averaging 19.93 points per game against FBS opponents.
It’s simply not working. That was as evident as ever on Saturday.
Bell, schematically, is failing his players. Over those last two years, he’s repeatedly displayed a lack of understanding of the players he’s working with and their skill sets.
Do Indiana’s offensive troubles fall squarely on Bell? Of course not. The offensive line, after showing signs of improvement at the beginning of the season, has regressed and is once again struggling to give much protection in either the run game or the pass game. IU has talent at wide receiver and running back, but probably still don’t rank in the top half of the Big Ten at those positions, and they aren’t being put in the right positions.
And, most obviously, Indiana has a redshirt freshman at quarterback who has shown some good things at times this season. Tayven Jackson has played in all five games, started four, and he’s now three games in as Indiana’s sole starting quarterback.
Jackson left some opportunities on the field Saturday, and made some throws he’d like back. His red-zone misfire to an open Andison Coby which would’ve been a touchdown sticks out. But Jackson is a young quarterback who’s still growing and learning, as many young players do. For him, every rep is crucial.
But Bell and IU’s offensive staff are hanging Jackson out to dry.
Jackson is a shifty quarterback who can make things happen when he drops back to pass, and he’s capable of extending plays and scrambling for positive yardage. But he is not a player made for the triple-option. Jackson’s pure running style — and, frankly, Indiana’s blocking — is not strong enough to threaten opposing defensive fronts.
And yet, Bell continues to stick with it. IU’s success rate on those plays is low, and the ceiling is low for the ones that do work. Indiana isn’t breaking off big 20-plus-yard runs on these option plays. And too many are getting blown up for the meager reward to be worth the risk.
Sure, some of the mishaps fall on Jackson, a young quarterback in a system that isn’t catered to his biggest strengths. He made the incorrect read on many of these options, and perhaps more of those plays would’ve worked out if he made different choices.
But these option plays aren’t suddenly a revelation if Jackson makes more correct reads. Systematically, even beyond Jackson, it’s just not working.
Bell has made it clear this season that one of the offense’s biggest goals is to get Jaylin Lucas a large number of touches in space, so he can juke defenders and create big plays. The Hoosiers even started to line Lucas up at slot receiver this year, and have attempted some creative ways to get him the ball.
Lucas is an electric player in those situations, and when IU can get him around the corner, he can be difficult to stop.
But Bell continues using him on basic runs up the middle, despite having more effective backs for those plays in Josh Henderson (who’s currently injured) and Christian Turner. Trent Howland, who Bell has included when talking about his group of top running backs without being prompted, would also seem a good choice for those plays, especially in short-yardage situations. But Howland has not yet seen much meaningful action this season.
Using Lucas on those runs up the middle is usually a waste of his abilities. The option plays have also proven an ineffective way to get him in space. The screen passes against the sideline without effective blocking nearby — which IU ran multiple times Saturday — haven’t been much better.
The Hoosiers, on the whole, have notably struggled in those short-yardage spots. Over the last three weeks, Indiana’s had 14 opportunities on either third or fourth down, or any goal-to-go down, from two yards or less. IU has converted five of those plays — and three came in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game in College Park, when the loss was already certain. Maryland is a good team, and the Terps didn’t have a second-team defense on the field in the fourth quarter. But the game circumstances of that situation are undeniably different for both sides.
Bell, on Monday, asserted his unit is “a run-first offense with an option element.” The numbers show a different story.
Entering the Maryland game, Indiana ranked 114th in the nation with 108.75 rushing yards per game. IU was 121st (out of 133) at 3.2 yards per carry. The 116 yards on 37 attempts Saturday won’t significantly alter those figures.
If the Hoosiers are a run-first offense, then they’re miserably failing at their supposed biggest strength.
It’s as if Bell decided what his offense was going to be in July, and instead of adapting and changing things up after seeing what hasn’t been working, is using every opportunity to try and prove his offensive genius to his doubters. And he seems willing to potentially go down with the sinking ship.
Bell, by all accounts, seems like a decent human being. There’s no reason to attack his character as a person off the field. But Indiana’s offense needs a change, and not the type involving depth chart adjustments.
It’s a move that seems clear right now, with a bye week to get a new play-caller prepared before IU plays No. 2 Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It’s fair to wonder if head coach Tom Allen has the heart to make the move for a coach who recently welcomed a new baby with his wife. His personal relationship with Darren Hiller seemingly factored into the decision to retain him going into 2022 and why he waited as long as he did to make a change. It’s a business — as one fan reminded Allen at his radio show on Wednesday — but Allen is as sympathetic as anyone to the real-life, personal implications of these decisions.
But there comes a point where enough is enough, and Indiana’s offensive performance at Maryland made one thing very clear.
It’s just not working.
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