BLOOMINGTON — Indiana’s defense did enough.
The Hoosiers suffered a 23-3 defeat against No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday, but against one of the most talented offensive units in the nation, their defense showed real signs of improvement from last season.
Indiana (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) held the Buckeyes to 380 yards of total offense; they had just two games last season with fewer yards. And the Hoosiers held only two opponents to that number last season.
OSU (1-0, 1-0) scored its fewest points against Indiana since 1993. The Buckeyes have been limited to that number or fewer just three times in the last two years.
Granted, this was the first start for junior Kyle McCord after the Buckeyes had back-to-back top-five picks in the NFL Draft at quarterback — Justin Fields and C.J. Stroud — over the last four years. And OSU head coach Ryan Day handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Brian Hartline in the offseason. The combination of those two things may have led to a little offensive rust.
But this was an undoubtedly encouraging performance for the IU defense.
“I feel like as a defense, we were able to show who we are a little bit,” redshirt senior Aaron Casey said. “Here and there, we had some let-ups and things like that, but we also had some good plays, some plays where we can really show who we are. I feel like the defense played well today.”
Last season, IU allowed 274.2 pass yards per game, the worst mark in the Big Ten. On Saturday, Ohio State threw for 237 yards. The Hoosiers will face other top passing attacks in the conference this season, but there are plenty of lesser opponents on tap that they’d expect to bring that average down.
Indiana’s patchwork secondary limited Marvin Harrison Jr., whom IU head coach Allen called the best wide receiver he’s ever faced in his career — to two catches for 18 yards on eight targets. Some of that was because of McCord miscues, but IU defensive backs came up with some pass breakups against Harrison as well.
Allen wasn’t sure what to expect from this secondary filled largely with transfer portal additions and underclassmen. And it wasn’t a perfect performance. There were a couple bad penalties, and IU had some trouble keeping tight end Cade Stover and wide receiver Julian Fleming in check. But that’s a byproduct of the work the Hoosiers did to limit Harrison and Emeka Egbuka.
Sophomore safety Phillip Dunnam had the biggest moment, on his fourth-down interception in the second quarter. But senior safety Louis Moore had a strong game as well, and cornerbacks Nic Toomer, Kobee Minor, Jamari Sharpe, and Jamier Johnson did their jobs.
Allen felt his defensive backs passed their first test.
“Obviously, you don’t know until you go do it. I was really concerned about that matchup. Those receivers are special. To be able to keep those guys in check was very critical,” Allen said. “Got some length in the back end. Got some playmakers. I was very encouraged by our secondary. A lot to build off of. A lot to be excited about in that area.”
Indiana’s defense struggled with tackling last season, and that wasn’t the case Saturday. Ohio State, obviously, made plays. But IU wasn’t whiffing on tackles and giving up extra yards.
IU gave up just two plays longer than 20 yards Saturday, and that’s largely because of sound tackling. The defense wasn’t giving up excessive yards after catch routinely, and didn’t let mistakes compound on each other.
And IU made some big plays in the red zone as well, which forced Ohio State to settle for a couple field goals that kept the score lower. Allen was particularly pleased with that.
“I was more encouraged by the bows up in the red zone. That’s when you got a long drive, you’re tired, you’re fatigued. It’s a gut check. It’s a character check,” Allen said. “Can you bow up when your body is really exhausted and fatigued and make a play against an elite team, a top-3 team in the country? So, to me, our guys showed that. Forced them to kick several field goals. And that’s how you win games.”
IU’s inside linebackers, Casey and redshirt senior Jacob Mangum-Farrar, were two of the biggest catalysts in the middle of the defense. Casey led IU with 11 tackles, including one tackle for loss. He made several plays in space that prevented the Buckeyes from breaking off big gains. Mangum-Farrar, a Stanford transfer, made five tackles and a team-high two pass breakups, one of which saved a touchdown.
And then there’s Western Michigan transfer Andre Carter. The redshirt senior defensive end was touted as Indiana’s biggest addition in the transfer portal, and he made his impact felt in his first game as a Hoosier. Carter recorded two tackles for loss, both in clutch third-down situations. He looked like a player who could make even bigger impacts as he faces weaker offensive lines and gets further acclimated to Big Ten play.
“We’re excited about (Casey and Mangum-Farrar). Two big, physical guys that can both run and make plays. We showed some (positive) signs up front, too,” Allen said. “Just got to keep getting better. I like the look in our guys’ eyes. There was no doubt a lot of disappointment in that locker room, but at the same time we’ve got to be able to look ourselves in the eye, make corrections, and get ready for a short week.”
IU has plenty to improve, on both sides of the ball, coming out of this first loss of the season. But the Hoosiers’ defense, on the whole, gave them a chance for most of the game Saturday. If the unit can perform like that regularly this season, this team could have a chance to be better than expected.
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