As Tom Allen entered Indiana’s team room for his press conference after IU’s win over Western Kentucky, his expression said it all.
While Allen made his way to the podium, he shot the crowd of reporters an unmistakable look. His eyes widened. He smiled. And, basically, he simultaneously exhaled and laughed.
It was another one of those games for Indiana football.
The type of contest that various iterations of IU teams have gone through for years. Games comprised equally of sloppy mistakes and clutch plays. The games that the Hoosiers somehow, some way hang in long enough to create late fourth-quarter tension — even if it doesn’t feel like they deserve to be in that position.
On this occasion, it went IU’s way. Just as it did against Illinois and Idaho. The Hoosiers have made some bad mistakes in every game, but, yet, they’re 3-0 — halfway to bowl eligibility.
“The exciting thing is we’re 3-0 with a lot of things to improve on. I feel we’re not even close to playing our best football,” IU head coach Tom Allen said. We’ve got to make sure that we understand as this season progresses it’s going to take four quarters to beat really good football teams on a consistent basis.”
IU’s defense had a tough day as a whole. Western Kentucky’s offense is hard to defend, as the Hilltoppers play fast and rank among the highest-scoring teams in the country. But Indiana helped them out at times, with some missed assignments on both running and passing plays. Indiana’s front struggled to consistently generate pressure on WKU quarterback Austin Reed, but the Hilltoppers had open receivers at times even when IU dropped seven or eight into coverage.
The Hilltoppers ran some trick plays that surprised the Hoosiers, but it wasn’t all straight-up trickery. WKU simply ran a lot of well-designed plays that IU was a step behind in recognizing.
Allen focused particularly on his team’s run defense needing improvement.
“Defensively, stopping the run — that, to me, won’t cut it,” Allen said. “I talked before the game that tackling was going to be big because of the way they make you play. Stopping the run, we did up until halftime. In the second half of the game, one of those was a complete misfit by one of our linebackers that has to make that play. It goes from either a one- or two-yard gain to a 50-yard run, which is inexcusable.”
Offensively, quarterback Connor Bazelak was under duress for much of the game. Indiana’s offensive line largely struggled when Western Kentucky brought any pressure, though the Hoosiers did pick up a few blitzes in some big spots. Starting center Zach Carpenter suffered an injury during pregame warmups, and with Cameron Knight already injured, Caleb Murphy stepped in. And he performed admirably on short notice.
But IU’s offensive line allowed three sacks and four hurries. Run blocking didn’t go much better, as IU struggled to get the ground game rolling aside from a few plays in the second half.
Bazelak mostly played well. He missed on a few throws, and made a few poor decisions. But he gave IU a chance to win more often than not.
His receivers didn’t help him at times. Cam Camper caught a touchdown when IU needed it most, and racked up 93 yards on eight receptions. But those eight catches came on 15 targets. Not all seven misses were drops, but he did drop some balls in big spots. Most notably, he didn’t catch a perfectly placed back-shoulder throw late in the first half which would’ve put IU in position to score before the break. D.J. Matthews had a couple drops as well, with five receptions on nine targets. AJ Barner made two catches on seven targets.
“We can’t drop the ball,” Allen said. “We’ve got a lot of talented receivers. I don’t want to see those drops. They’re so huge.”
The coaching staff isn’t exempt from these mistakes either. Allen made some questionable clock management decisions at the end of the first half. Offensive coordinator Walt Bell made some play calls that he’d probably like to have back, some coming in critical points in the game.
But the Hoosiers balanced it out with some clutch moments, especially in the second half. IU forced two takeaways, and both became turning points. UCLA transfer Myles Jackson came up with an interception in the end zone later in the third quarter, when a WKU touchdown would’ve made it a three-possession game. A few possessions later — now early in the fourth quarter — Jackson recovered a fumble forced by Cam Jones, setting IU up in the red zone with a chance to tie the score.
Bazelak orchestrated another important drive with the game on the line, capped by a touchdown pass to Camper and hitting sophomore Donaven McCulley for the game-tying two-point conversion. And, in overtime, IU’s special teams sealed the win with two key plays.
“We tell ourselves like we haven’t played our best football yet. And we know that,” McCulley said. “So when this team is playing their best football, I feel like we’re going to be a really good team.”
This is how so many Indiana football games have gone throughout the last decade. Some good moments, some head-scratching. Some big plays, some face-palming. Rinse and repeat.
IU was able to get away with these types of mistakes against Western Kentucky and Idaho. They escaped against Illinois. But the rest of the schedule won’t be as forgiving. And that starts next week — Cincinnati isn’t the force it was the last few years, but it’s still a good team. And certainly, the Big Ten slate will be tough.
The bottom line is that the mistakes Indiana’s been making won’t cut it as the schedule gets more difficult. And the Hoosiers know that.
But when you win a game as intense as this one in spite of the various mistakes, sometimes all you can do is laugh. And exhale. At the same time.
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