COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the second week in a row, Dexter Williams II breathed some life into the Indiana offense once he took over at quarterback.
Williams entered Saturday’s game at Ohio State — a 56-14 Buckeyes win — during the first quarter, when the Hoosiers already trailed 21-0. Junior Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak started the game, but Williams subbed in after three consecutive three-and-outs.
And immediately — on his first play — Williams ran for 16 yards, IU’s first first down of the game. That drive ended in a touchdown.
IU head coach Tom Allen said the team planned for Williams to get a chance at some point — which he alluded to during the week — and they’d see how he performed when deciding whether or not to let him continue. He wouldn’t go as far as officially naming Williams the starter for the rest of the season, but all signs point in that direction — as they should.
“We will evaluate that, as a staff, but I liked what I saw from Dexter today,” Allen said. “I thought Dex was moving the football, obviously took us down to the end zone and gave us a chance to make some plays with his legs. … I think he got some real good experience today.”
Now, that’s not necessarily a full-fledged endorsement of Williams. He made some plays, but left some others on the table. Overall, he finished 6 of 19 on passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns. And, adjusting for the four sacks he took for 29 total yards, Williams gained 75 rushing yards on 12 attempts.
Allen correctly added that Williams missed on some throws — and the redshirt sophomore, himself, admitted the same. Given the already lopsided score when he replaced Bazelak, none of the misses were game-swingers.
But a few of his errant throws cost IU chances to score or extend drives. Notably, tight end Aaron Steinfeldt was open on 4th and 2 just outside the red zone, and Williams sailed it over his head.
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“I just wish I could’ve been more consistent in my throws,” Williams said. “We’ll go back to work this week and I’ll work on that, and the receivers will work on getting our timing down. And we’ll figure it out.”
Williams has the arm strength to make big plays. He hit Andison Coby on a deep shot for 49 yards on his first throw of the game, and his deep throw to Donaven McCulley in the second quarter that nearly drew a pass interference call traveled at least 50 yards in the air.
Though a quarterback would always suggest they could get even stronger, that isn’t Williams’ issue. It’s the inaccuracy.
Actually, inconsistency — as he said — is a better word for this. Williams’ motion looked off at times, like he was throwing from different arm slots from one drive to the next.
But that’s something coaches can work on with Williams in practice. It’s harder to get a quarterback like Bazelak to become more of a runner than it is to improve Williams as a passer.
Like anything, consistency will come with repetition. The more time Williams gets working with the starters in practice, and the more game time he gets to work on throwing against opposition, the better chance he’ll have to grow.
Williams is already learning from the limited game action he’s had in the last two weeks, against two of the top defenses in the Big Ten. It’s shown him the importance of taking care of the ball, and how much time he really has in game situations to make decisions.
Even after Williams’ first taste of game action against Penn State, tight end AJ Barner didn’t see anything different from Williams in practice. Barner saw Williams display the same good work ethic he’d shown before he got his chance in games.
“Dex has always been an extremely hard worker, and I just saw more of that,” Barner said. “I’m proud of him and excited to see him continue to grow.”
That running is where Williams is clearly strong. His quickness and elusiveness gives Indiana’s offense a chance to put a drive together, even on the many broken plays caused by its blocking failures. Williams can escape the pocket and create something on those plays, where with IU’s other quarterbacks, those plays turn out negative much of the time.
IU had that element in its offense in recent years with Michael Penix Jr., along with quarterback-turned-receiver McCulley, who caught Williams’ second touchdown Saturday.
“When you have a guy that can extend the play with his legs, it does put more stress on the defense, without question,” Allen said. “Definitely gives you an advantage, and we want to be able to keep expanding that. I liked what I saw from him. You’ve got to find guys on your roster that can help you move the football on offense, get first downs, and score points.”
And despite Williams’ mobility, the Hoosiers rarely ran designed running plays for him. He gained most of his rushing yardage through scrambling. Allen said they had to strike a balance between maximizing Williams’ ability without overloading him too early in his college career.
As Williams gets more work in practice and games, he should be able to handle more of the playbook — even if it’s incremental. There are obvious advantages IU can create through those designed runs, whether it’s setting up big plays for Williams or getting running backs more lanes because the defense has to respect the quarterback keeper.
But, even after a blowout for a seventh straight loss, Indiana found some clarity. Williams has to be the starting quarterback for the rest of the season. After missing all of 2021 with a torn ACL, every rep he gets in practice and every play he gets in a game makes a big difference for his development.
At 3-7, the 2022 season is lost. Against Michigan State and Purdue, the most valuable use of the quarterback position for Indiana is to give Williams every chance to develop — so, maybe, 2023 can turn out differently.
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