Photo by Patrick Felts for The Daily Hoosier

Despite the 3-0 start, this IU football program appears dangerously close to repeating 2021

Indiana’s first road trip in 2022 looked a lot like their first venture away from home in 2021 — a first half onslaught.  Hoosiers in the headlights.

The scoreboard operator was very busy in the first half at Cincinnati on Saturday, much like they were at Iowa a year ago, as the points piled up for the home team like a video game.

And while these 2022 Hoosiers started their campaign 3-0, it was easy to see they were playing with fire, scraping by against Illinois, Idaho and Western Kentucky.

Facing their first big-time opponent in a challenging venue, on Saturday against the Bearcats, IU got scorched.

At Iowa a year ago, a defensive blunder sent the season sideways in a hurry as the Hawkeyes scored on a 56-yard run less than two minutes into the game.  On Saturday at Cincinnati there were several first half mistakes by the defense that led to points — this time through the air.

Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant hit for four passes of at least 32 yards in the first half.  Three went for touchdowns and the fourth set up another score.  IU coach Tom Allen attributed the big passing plays to mistakes by his secondary — the group believed to be the strength of this team coming into the season.

“We gave up some double-moves.  Some of our best guys getting beat one-on-one,” Allen said.  “Those big pass plays were the difference for us.  I’m really disappointed in that.  Our defense really let us down in the first half.”

Allen counts on allowing veteran cornerbacks Tiawan Mullen, Jaylin Williams and others to survive those one-on-ones, but acknowledged he had to make adjustments at halftime to “get those guys help.”

Indiana’s defense was much better in the second half against Cincinnati, but it’s reasonable to wonder — how good can they really be this season if they are forced to go into a more vanilla defensive approach because they can’t get enough pressure on the quarterback, and they can’t survive that lack of pressure on the back-end?

The most concerning group coming into the season was Indiana’s offensive line, and things are only getting worse there.

Down two starters from a year ago, with no major upgrades from the transfer portal, it was reasonable to wonder how the Hoosiers would be improved up front.

On Saturday at Nippert Stadium, it was abundantly clear — they aren’t better.

Quarterback Connor Bazelak was hit 12 times, sacked five times, and Cincinnati produced 12 tackles for a loss.

Indiana’s offense has consistently started slow and hasn’t established a rhythm at any point through the first four games.  The reason why seems clear — too many plays are blown up at the line of scrimmage.  Too many times Bazelak is forced out of the pocket.  And far too many times, he’s taking hits.

With all of that pressure, eventually, as was the case at Iowa a year ago, the offense will give up points too.

That’s what happened in the final minute of the first half, as Bazelak was hit from behind, fumbled, and Cincinnati scooped up the loose ball and scored to produce their fourth touchdown of the second quarter and 38th point of the first half.

Indiana’s offensive line is down two starters from the season opener against Illinois.  Right tackle Matthew Bedford is gone for the season after he tore his ACL in week one, and center Zach Carpenter missed his second straight game.  A year ago IU ended up playing a fifth-string walk-on quarterback late in the season.  And if the hits on Bazelak continue, it’s difficult to imagine how he’ll make it through this 2022 season.

Bazelak said the right things after the game when he was asked about his protection.

“The offensive line fought their butts off.  They always will, and I love those guys,” he said.

Allen and Bazelak were both asked why the offense has been unable to find that elusive rhythm through four weeks.  Neither called out the poor line play directly, perhaps showing some mercy with the reshuffling underway with Bedford and Carpenter both out.

But still, Allen implied the obvious — no offense can establish consistency amid a wave of constant pressure, constant hits on the quarterback, and constant negative plays in the backfield.

“When you put yourselves behind the chains, and they’re able to put their ears back,” Allen said. …. “I think it’s critical that you stay numerically where you need to be in terms of the chains, and I think that really effects us in a negative way.

While the 2021 season started with a blowout loss and ended with several ugly games in a row, the difference, at least right now, is that hope has not been lost.

With the Hoosiers down 28 at the break, a challenge was laid down.

“Someone said at halftime ‘if you don’t believe we can win this game, then just stay in the locker room,'” Bazelak relayed after the game.  “Everyone believed.”

Perhaps that belief was buoyed by the 3-0 start that was itself fueled by second half comebacks.

And perhaps Indiana did enough in the second half at Cincinnati to convince themselves they are not the 2021 Hoosiers.

But there are no more Idahos and Western Kentuckys on the schedule.

It’s all Big Ten the rest of the way, and IU may not be favored to win another game.

Or as Allen put it on Saturday night:  “You’ve got to be able to handle that.  It’s the reality of what’s ahead.”

At least on Saturday, Indiana’s reality looked a lot more like 2021, and a lot less like the 3-0 start that is also now a thing of the past.

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