“2022 is going to show you what was the outlier,” Tom Allen said last week.
“Was it ‘20 or ‘21?”
2020 was the year Indiana shocked the college football world with wins over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
And that 2020 win over Wisconsin was Indiana’s last in the Big Ten, as the Hoosiers went 0-9 in the league a year ago, even getting blown out at home by Rutgers in the process.
Collectively Allen’s Hoosiers went 14-7 combined in 2019 and 2020. They were the darlings of college football. Now they are once again who they’ve always been in the minds of at least the knee jerk segment of IU fans — loveable losers.
This 2022 season is a defining one for Allen and his tenure at IU. If he returns Indiana to the postseason, then with three bowls in four seasons, chalk up 2021 as a hiccup.
But if the Hoosiers stack miserable campaigns, it will be hard to convince just about anyone that 2019 and 2020 still matter.
We don’t have to wait long to get our first clue. Just about everyone and everything, including Vegas (Indiana – 1.5), ESPN’s SP+ (push), and ESPN’s FPI (Indiana 52.7%) call the season opener with Illinois too close for comfort. It’s a game both teams likely to need reach six wins, and especially Indiana.
Was 2020 or 2021 the outlier? Let’s examine.
WHY IT WILL WORK IN 2022
The injuries in 2021 were absurd. Coaches won’t typically bring up injuries as an “excuse,” but Allen hasn’t hesitated to say they played a major role in his team’s 2021 demise. And he hasn’t really been called out on that claim — because he’s right.
In total Allen says 32 players suffered injuries that caused them to miss games in 2021, including many for most of, if not the entire season. The tally included several of their most important defenders, including Tiawan Mullen, James Head, Jr. and Devon Matthews. It also included the top two quarterbacks, starting running back, and top playmaker in D.J. Matthews.
The defense should be good. We’ll see who IU runs out on the field on Friday night, but Allen could start a defense entirely made up of fourth, fifth and sixth-year players. In fact, that’s almost a certainty to happen.
Yes, every team in college football is old with the extra year of eligibility granted. But Indiana has a wealth of experience, and one of the best defensive backfields in the Big Ten. More than half of the expected starters on this defense have received all-conference honors already, including someone at all three levels — Mullen, Matthews, Jaylin Williams, Cam Jones, Demarcus Elliott and JH Tevis.
And Allen is back to calling the plays on game day. His entire story of becoming the head coach started with his success as a defensive play-caller.
A new offense brings new hope. If it seemed like Michigan alumnus Nick Sheridan was trying to run Bo Schembechler’s offense with IU’s personnel, well, we’d agree. As Kalen DeBoer and Kevin Wilson have taught us, you can have a productive, even explosive offense at IU without top-tier talent.
We aren’t going to proclaim new offensive coordinator Walt Bell is the savior, but we do fully expect the scheme to look much different. You can expect much more tempo, reading, reacting, and getting playmakers in space. There is also a belief the changes will place less significance on the offensive line’s ability to sustain blocks and win with physicality.
There’s also this — don’t forget Michael Penix, Jr. was never comfortable a year ago after a second ACL surgery less than 10 months before the start of the season. The seven interceptions he threw in just over four games were devastating, not to mention his 53.7 completion percentage. We can’t say Connor Bazelak or Jack Tuttle will be 2019-2020 Michael Penix, Jr., but they can easily exceed the 2021 version.
Explosive playmakers. When D.J. Matthews went down in week four, the offense went with him. Indiana scored just 11 points per game over the final eight weeks. Matthews is back, although it is fair to wonder how effective he’ll be coming off his own ACL surgery less than a year ago.
But running back Shaun Shivers has elite track speed, and true freshman Jaylin Lucas is even faster and shiftier than Shivers. At receiver Indiana may have lost starters Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall, but they appear to have gained more speed, and they plan to cycle through eight or nine at the position to see who can be difference makers.
Finally at tight end, many believe A.J. Barner is a faster, more athletic version of Peyton Hendershot, who just made the Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster.
WHY IT WON’T
Meet the new line. Same as the old line. Indiana has five new coaches under Allen this year, but offensive line coach Darren Hiller is back after his unit’s disastrous 2021 campaign. And they’ve lost two starters along the way without making any significant additions via the transfer portal. The 2021 offensive line couldn’t protect the quarterback, and they couldn’t create running lanes.
We won’t see much of those explosive playmakers if there isn’t vastly improved play up front. There is a lot of noise about more toughness and physicality, and the veterans on the line seem to be taking it all personal. But seeing will be believing with the crew.
Have you seen the schedule? A 3-0 start seems essential not only for the psyche of this team, but also for its bowl eligibility hopes. Six of the next eight games include road trips to Cincinnati and Nebraska, and the fearsome Big Ten East foursome of Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State. There’s a five-of-eight stretch on the road in weeks four through eleven. All told, Indiana’s schedule ranks as the No. 11 most difficult in the country according to ESPN’s FPI.
All day to throw? If there is a shortcoming on the defense, it has been an inability to create push with the front four, and get pressure on the quarterback without using elaborate blitz schemes that create exposure on the back end. That dates back even to the 2020 season, when the majority of the sacks came from the back seven.
A year ago IU was No. 115 nationally in sacks, and while they were much better on the whole in 2020, only 6.5 sacks came from the line, with most coming from Jerome Johnson, who is no longer with the team.
In the modern era of football with spread offenses and quick throws, a comfortable quarterback is a recipe for disaster. Indiana has to find ways to at least be disruptive in the backfield, and it would be a major boost if that pressure came from the front four.
Is there depth? Yes there were injuries in 2021, but guess what? There will be injuries in 2022 as well. Perhaps not to the same scale and order of magnitude, but Indiana’s depth will be tested once again. It is easy to look at the cornerbacks and safeties and have optimism about the starters. But what about their backups? Often it is the ability to sustain high-level play after injuries that separates the elite programs. The same holds true for special teams, which often feature elite athletes at the top-tier schools.
A survey of just about every position group yields the same analysis. There is talent at the top. But what about that next man up?
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