Photo By John Sims Indiana Athletics

Indiana Football 2018: From Breakneck Tempo to Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust?

It was no secret what former Indiana head football coach Kevin Wilson was trying to accomplish on offense.

At times he has referred to it as “be quick but don’t hurry,” or “you don’t want to rush but you want to go fast.”  As confusing as that may sound, the tempo was undeniable.  Typically spending less than 20 seconds between plays, the Hoosiers even had to scrap the fan favorite “National Emblem” performance by the Hoosier Hundred between first downs.

With defenses on their heels and the Hoosiers moving downhill, Indiana had an identity on offense, and for the most part it was effective.

When you look forward to the 2018 season under 2nd year head coach Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, the strengths of this football team seem clear — the offensive line and running backs.

The Hoosiers return all of their starting offensive line and have two-deep experience at every position there.  At running back, Morgan Ellison will be the centerpiece as he looks to break-out from a solid freshman year, but there are several talented runners behind him including Cole Gest, Mike Majette, Ricky Brookins and others.

But what is the offensive identity of this team under their relatively new coaches?

Wesley Martin
Via Wes Martin @WesleyMartin76

Interestingly, DeBord, a Muncie, Indiana native, has a diverse track record when it comes to offensive philosophies. He was the offensive coordinator at Michigan from 1997-99.  He won a national title there in 1997 with Brian Griese as his quarterback. The next two seasons he coached Tom Brady.  Those Michigan teams ran a pro-style offense, often lining up in the I-formation.

While the offensive coordinator at Tennessee, DeBord and the Volunteers ran a spread offense, but they emphasized the run via zone reads.  Tennessee finished 20th in 2015 and 37th in 2016 nationally in rushing offense under DeBord.  In large part that approach succeeded behind a fleet footed quarterback in Joshua Dobbs.

So what does it all mean looking forward to 2018?  The Hoosiers are likely still going to be spread out, but with the three potential quarterbacks all having good legs, a strong offensive line, and a stable of good running backs, IU is going to be looking to wear people down.

There was frustration with DeBord in year one at Indiana, ranging from play calling to results on the field.  Was it justified while he tried to blend his system with the hand he was dealt?  Probably not, but the Hoosiers did seem predictable at times and struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone.

The growing pains were compounded by Indiana’s need to adapt the gameplan to fit the strengths of two very different quarterbacks in Peyton Ramsey and Richard Lagow.

Whoever the quarterback ends up being in 2018, their styles of play are much more similar than the Ramsey/Lagow dynamic last year, and much more in line with what DeBord is trying to implement.  DeBord would be the first to tell you that the expectations should be higher in year two, and he did just that at the IU football media day.

“When I went to Tennessee, we had a similar situation.  We had a lot of the offensive line coming back, and a lot of the offense coming back.  From year one to year two was such a great growth, and that’s what I see with this group.  It all starts up front,”  DeBord said.

When Allen hired DeBord, he suggested that the play-calling was going to be solely in the offensive coordinator’s hands.  While that arrangement appears destined to remain the same with Allen more heavily involved in the defense, Allen has had a year to discover his own offensive philosophy.  He may not be calling plays, but his influence will be felt.

At the IU football media day, Allen said that he expects the offensive line to “set the tone”, and red zone efficiency and running the ball have been his areas of focus during the offseason.

With a younger defense, Allen still wants speed and tempo on offense, but he doesn’t want to do it at the expense of his defensive unit.  As he said on the BTN set at Big Ten media day, look for IU to slow it down, at least at times, as they attempt to impose their will behind the strengths of the team.

“We are going to be a tempo offense, but I want to be able to control the tempo of that offense.  We’re going to have to run the football better,” Allen told the BTN crew.

The 2nd year coach went on to say that “its about first downs.”  The down side to Wilson’s offense was that a three-and-out took about two minutes of real time, and put a tired defense right back out on the field.  This year, that scenario could be a recipe for disaster.

We don’t expect IU to go back to DeBord’s Michigan days and line up in the I-formation, at least not with any degree of regularity.  Don’t look for Allen to invoke his inner Woody Hayes and ground and pound his way to three yards and a cloud of dust.

Quite simply, that wouldn’t be a winning formula, at least not against the stout top teams of the Big Ten East.  This offense is still going to have a modern flair, spread-out, with zone reads and run-pass options.

But this year’s edition of the Hoosiers is going to run the ball first and look to impose their will.  They are going to run to set up the pass, and then take advantage of safeties that start cheating up.

Indiana finished the 2017 season ranked 105th nationally and 12th in the Big Ten in rushing offense.  That simply cannot happen in 2018.

Ball control, long drives and finishing in the red zone will likely determine whether this program can reach its third bowl game in the past four seasons.

Ultimately, a heavy dose of a successful running game is likely to lead to a happy fan base in 2018.  Not only is it the best formula to lead to more wins, but it will also result in a heavy dose of the one identifiable tradition within this program — the National Emblem first down march.

If IU is going to march its way to six, seven, or even eight wins this year, there is likely to be an inordinately high amount of “First Down, Hooooosiers!” along the way.

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