No part of Indiana’s team has been more impacted by early season injuries than the defensive backfield.
And the revolving door on the back end has no doubt played a role when it comes to a lack of takeaways by what was one of the country’s most productive units in 2020. The Hoosiers have gone from 17 interceptions in eight games last season to just two in five 2021 contests.
Already this season both of IU’s starting safeties have missed time, along with its top four cornerbacks on the depth chart.
It started in week one when senior safety Devon Matthews suffered a frightening upper-body injury after making first contact with his helmet on a tackle at Iowa. That caused Matthews to have to stay behind in Iowa City briefly and then miss two games. On Saturday his fellow starting safety Raheem Layne limped off the field in the second half and did not return against Penn State, and Ole Miss transfer safety Jonathan Haynes has missed time with an injury too.
With the cornerbacks, things have gotten borderline chaotic.
All-American Tiawan Mullen was coming off his best game of the season against Western Kentucky but was a surprise scratch against Penn State due to an injury he suffered in that game a week ago. His All-Big Ten running mate Jaylin Williams suffered a concussion at Western Kentucky, missed much of that game, and made it through the protocol to play at Penn State.
Already the Hoosiers had lost second-stringer Chris Keys for the season with a torn ACL at corner, and on Saturday starter Reese Taylor incurred what appeared to be a leg injury and he didn’t return.
When asked last week where he might turn for depth at cornerback, defensive coordinator Charlton Warren jokingly returned the question with “got anybody in mind?”
Indiana is deep in the defensive backfield, and the answers have been veteran backups. Players like third-year safety Josh Sanguinetti and fourth-year cornerback Noah Pierre have been two who have seen significant roles through the early part of the season.
While the reserves should be commended for holding down the fort and keeping the defense at a respectable level, things might reset when IU returns to the field on Oct. 16 against Michigan State. Warren appears likely to be able to send out the same group who started the season in Iowa City.
“The good news is with all those guys injured on defense, they all have a prognosis of expecting a full recovery in the short term,” head coach Tom Allen said on Monday.
For a host of reasons not the least of which is the health of the secondary, IU has a well-timed bye week, and this week will be used as an opportunity for everyone, and especially the defensive backs to get their bodies right.
“For some of those guys that means they will not practice this week,” Allen said. “The goal is to get them ready for Sunday night’s practice a week from yesterday to get them ready for a full week of preparation for Michigan State. Many of those guys will be rehabbing heavily this week, but fully expect them to be able to recover and be full speed for the second week of this two week window.”
The defense has held up surprisingly well considering the extent of the injuries and the caliber of the competition through the first five weeks. Meanwhile, things have not been so pleasant on the offensive side of the football, due to a multitude of issues including injuries, transfers and most of all – performance.
The best way to describe Indiana’s back-seven games would be winnable but challenging, with the possible exception of Ohio State, a program that obviously falls much further down on the challenging end of the spectrum. It now seems clear that if the Hoosiers are going to pull some of those contests out, it will be the defense not just leading the way, but taking games over.
And at least for now it looks like they just might be healthy enough to have a chance to get that done.
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