Credit - IU Athletics

IU football must improve the run game to continue program rise

Indiana deserves respect.

That much is clear after Saturday’s 42-35 heartbreaking loss to No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. The now No. 12 ranked Hoosiers proved they are a top 20 team, going toe-to-toe with one of college football’s blue bloods.

Everyone from Parris Cambell to LeBron James gave IU their due on Twitter, as the star quarterback-receiver duo of Michael Penix Jr. and Ty Fryfogle became social media darlings.

Penix was just a few yards from Indiana’s single-game passing record, going 27-for-51 with 491 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Fryfogle beat his own single-game receiving yards record that he set last week with seven receptions for 218 yards and 3 scores.  He now owns the fifth and seventh best single-day receiving yards days in IU football history.

All of that is incredible, and Indiana deservedly has been praised.

But you can’t expect to beat Ohio State with -1 yards on 16 total rush attempts.

For as many what-ifs as there were Saturday, and there were several — the David Ellis and the Jamar Johnson red zone fumbles to name a couple –there was also this.

The Buckeyes out-gained the Hoosiers 307 to -1 on the ground.

And while the struggles on the ground against Ohio State stood out, they weren’t anything new.

Indiana has not had a 100-yard rusher this season, and more to the point, IU is No. 123 (out of 127) nationally in rushing yards.  Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan has had to go full Mike Leach-mode, letting Penix drop back over 50 times twice in the last three games.

Maybe Penix is just that good. But in order to win these big games, and not just come close, there has to be some kind of threat on the ground to keep defenses honest.

Stevie Scott is a great red zone and goal-line back, but he lacks the explosiveness to burst through holes consistently. Sampson James is a bit shiftier, but he is also not a breakaway back and hasn’t seen extended volume to this point.

But Scott and James have both shown they can be effective running backs when there is room to run.

The more pressing issue right now is the offensive line.  Down starting left tackle Caleb Jones, IU has been overpowered up front in the run game.

The issues were magnified against Ohio State’s elite talent, something head coach Tom Allen was worried about going into the game.

“I was concerned about our ability to run the ball against these guys,” Allen said after the game. “It’s something we have to make a major priority, we have to get a lot better up front, and do a better job running the football.”

Game flow was obviously a part of the statistical blow out in the running game against the Buckeyes.  Indiana was down 28 points, so of course they were going to throw the football.

But it was the second quarter that did the Hoosiers in.

Ohio State scored three touchdowns in that second session, and they were able to do so because of an inability to sustain drives by Indiana’s offense. When you can’t get four or five yards on the ground even once or twice, you often can’t keep drives going, can’t flip the field, and can’t take some pressure off the defense, which had to face the vaunted Ohio State offense for 36:24 of the game.

Allen said it himself, running the football effectively “takes the pressure off of our pass game.”

And there was a ton of pressure on the pass game.  How much, you ask?

According to PFF, Penix’s 305 yards passing while under pressure were the most ever in a game since that outlet has kept such numbers.

That makes Penix’s performance all the more impressive.

But it also highlights the danger.

Indiana is limited offensively and somewhat predictable.  They are also one big hit on their quarterback away from having this whole season turn sideways.

That pick-six that Penix threw?  That was a result of seeing pressure all day, and the clock in Penix’s head on fast forward.

Penix is having an incredible season.  A Heisman conversation worthy season.

But even if he has been acknowledged by the King, Penix isn’t Superman.

There are still several big tests ahead. While the Ohio State loss was disappointing, the opportunity remains for this season to end up as a big step forward from a memorable 2019 campaign.

But while the offense’s pass game is their obvious strength, the run game has to improve for the Hoosiers to get where they want to be by season’s end.

You can follow Aidan Kunst on Twitter HERE.

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