The first quarter of Indiana’s season has been riddled with mistakes.
They didn’t end up costing the Hoosiers games quite yet, but it wouldn’t be sustainable to keep playing that way as the schedule got tougher.
Saturday in Cincinnati it got tougher, and those mistakes finally caught up with IU.
This wasn’t a case of a few key moments swinging the Bearcats’ way and deciding the game. The Hoosiers made critical errors in all three phases of the game, and did so in a game where they couldn’t afford to do so. Cincinnati made IU pay with a 45-24 win.
Defensively, Indiana’s secondary had a rough first half. The Bearcats connected on a few big pass plays to grow their lead, and just torched IU with the passing game overall. The big plays all saw coverage breakdowns — cornerbacks beaten in one-on-one situations, and no safety help.
Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant entered the locker room at halftime completing 17 of 21 pass attempts for 314 yards and four touchdowns.
“Gave up some double moves, some of our best guys getting beat one-on-one. It was disappointing, without question,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. “The defense let us down in the first half. We stopped the run today, we’ve got to stop the pass. Just dug too deep of a hole for ourselves in that first half.”
IU’s special teams mistakes didn’t pile high, but there were some backbreaking moments. Christian Harris has made several big tackles on punt coverage this season, but his fourth-quarter roughing the kicker penalty was not a bright moment. It didn’t end up hurting IU as badly as it could have, but it cost the Hoosiers 2:10 off the clock. And later in the quarter, Connor Delp fair caught a punt at his own 4 yard line, potentially costing IU notable field position.
Offensively, IU had trouble getting the run game going. Shaun Shivers broke off a 47-yard touchdown run, but outside of that, he and Josh Henderson combined for just 61 rushing yards.
The offensive line had mixed results through the first three weeks of the season, but the struggles reached a new level on Saturday. Quarterback Connor Bazelak rarely had sufficient time to operate, and frequently had to flee the pocket. Cincinnati racked up 12 quarterback hurries, along with five sacks. Those are whopping figures for an offensive line that was, to this point, pretty “bend but don’t break.”
Sure, the number may be bloated by IU attempting a school-record 66 passes. That wasn’t the plan going in, but the Hoosiers fell behind by so much in the first half that there wasn’t really a choice.
Bazelak has dealt with pressure plenty of times this year. He’s often handled it well, and, at times, he did on Saturday.
But he made some uncharacteristic mistakes in those situations, as well. He held on to the ball for too long at times, resulting in unnecessary sacks. And he made a few dangerous throws while under duress.
This game also continued a concerning trend for IU’s offense. The Hoosiers continue to start games slowly. In four first quarters, Indiana’s scored nine total points. The Hoosiers have trailed three of those four games at the end of the first quarter — and the one they didn’t, they were tied 0-0 with FCS opponent Idaho.
It’s a major concern. IU has to be able to get into an offensive rhythm earlier in games.
“(Starting better) definitely has to be a point of emphasis — not that it hasn’t been, but obviously not good enough, because we’re still struggling to get off to a fast start on offense,” Allen said. “We have to make some changes to how we’re practicing to be able to get where we want to be.”
Indiana had gotten away with some sloppy play against Illinois, Idaho, and Western Kentucky in reaching 3-0. But in Cincinnati, the mistakes compounded and IU had too much ground to make up.
Ahead of the game, Allen compared this matchup to an extra Big Ten contest. This, then, should be a lesson for the Hoosiers as they get set to return to league play: good Big Ten teams will make them pay for a slew of mistakes.
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