Darron Cummings/AP

IU football enters offseason with similar questions as it had last year

Indiana football closed out its whimper of a season with a whimper of a game. The Hoosiers dropped the Old Oaken Bucket game to Purdue, 30-16. It’s the second straight rivalry game win for the Boilermakers and their fourth in the last five contests.

And now, once again, Indiana (4-8, 2-7) enters the offseason in need of soul-searching.

This year is different than last year. The Hoosiers entered 2021 ranked in the AP Top 25, and full of promise after a successful stretch in 2019-2020. The ruins left by that season were accentuated by the expectations that preceded them.

While the frequent pain the 2022 season caused is similar, this season can’t be called a letdown like 2021.

A disappointment? Sure. But these Hoosiers did not fall short of expectations. Per The Action Network, Indiana’s win total in early August was four. This is a team that was projected to be bad from the outset, and hit that mark exactly.

But that doesn’t sweeten the taste left in IU mouths after the clock hit triple-zeroes for the final time. Indiana started 3-0 — halfway to bowl eligibility right away — and missed opportunity after opportunity to inch closer to a bowl.

The wins were all marred by sloppy play or opponent mistakes that handed IU the game. The 2022 Indiana Hoosiers played a frustrating brand of football, a style that sounded much better in theory than in execution.

Indiana’s offensive tempo was meant to put pressure on opposing defenses, make it hard for them to substitute, force mistakes, and rack up points. The Hoosiers did that on occasion, but it caused just as many errors for themselves as it did for the opponents. Putting Dexter Williams II in at quarterback over Connor Bazelak late in the season gave the offense a jolt, another dynamic playmaker on the field for a team that didn’t have that many to begin with.

When Williams suffered a gruesome leg injury and Bazelak took over near the end of the first quarter in Saturday’s finale, it provided a reminder of just how bleak this Indiana offense looked for much of the season. The Hoosiers did outgain Purdue, but they racked up the difference-making yardage on the game’s final possession after the Boilermakers had already sealed the win.

IU’s defensive performance Saturday defined its entire season, in a way. Devin Mockobee plowed through Indiana defenders in the second half, and Purdue receivers punished IU’s secondary for six plays of 15 yards or more. The offensive ineptitude put the defense in an unfair position, but the manner of some of the lapses — like poor tackling and coverage breakdowns — left the defense with some fault anyway. Allen wants the defense to be this team’s foundation, and this edition of the Indiana defense was not that.

Given the external expectations for Indiana this season, it’s not a complete shock that the program is going into another offseason with questions to answer.

The troubling aspect of it is that many of those same questions are in the same areas as a year ago. Tom Allen opted for stability on the offensive line by retaining Darren Hiller, and addressed other concerns with hires like Walt Bell and Chad Wilt along with decisions like taking back defensive play-calling duties.

All of that led to the season IU just wrapped up — as rough as expected.

Allen faces some of the same issues going into 2023. What sort of coaching does the offensive line need to improve on its dismal returns from 2022? Is the current offensive scheme, with the roster in place, one that can be successful in the Big Ten? Who’s to blame for defensive problems with fundamentals and regression from some veterans, and what’s the best remedy? How can the program recruit successfully against conference foes with the NIL resources it’s working with?

And there are plenty more beyond that, both granular and broad. Some problems go beyond what Tom Allen can do on his own. But nonetheless, he has a lot of things to work through within the program.

And given the current state of Indiana football, he can’t afford to answer many more of those questions incorrectly.