As Indiana football moves on from its close loss to Maryland and prepares for an important road game at Rutgers, here are a few notes, quotes, and bits of analysis around the team.
McCullough receiving national attention
Freshman linebacker Dasan McCullough was one of the highest-touted recruits in IU football history. And so far, he’s lived up to the billing.
The Athletic named McCullough to its midseason freshman All-America team on Tuesday, one of four linebackers on the team. He was the lone IU representative in the squad. Three other Big Ten teams placed players on the team, including two from Maryland.
McCullough has four sacks this season, tied for 40th in the country and tied for sixth in the Big Ten. He also has five tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hurries, and two pass breakups. Indiana quickly took advantage of his versatility, lining him up at several spots on defense.
Coaches have tried to be cautious with him, not wanting to overload the freshman and put too much responsibility on his plate while he continues developing. But he’s already become one of IU’s best defensive players, and national media has taken notice.
Keying in on negative plays
Though Indiana’s offense rebounded from a tough day against Michigan to score its second-most points of the season last week, IU was again on the wrong end of some negative plays.
Connor Bazelak threw interceptions on the first play of the game and the first play of the second half, committed two critical intentional grounding penalties, Andison Coby fumbled in a huge moment in the game, and a few drops proved costly.
At Monday’s press conference, offensive coordinator Walt Bell said his unit played well overall, but big moments like those will often decide the game.
“When you’re playing high-level football — whether it be the NFL, Big Ten East, when you’re playing great football — that game is going to be defined by somewhere between four and eight plays,” Bell said. “You never know which one it’s going to be. You’ve got to make more than your share if you’re going to win that game.”
Bazelak said that one of his two intentional groundings could have been avoided, but the other was either that or a sack. And after reviewing the film, he determined the interceptions weren’t bad decisions, but one errant throw and one where the defensive back just made a play.
The junior has thrown eight interceptions this season, tied for fourth-most in the country. But he does attempt more passes per game than anyone in the country, so his interception percentage is not as far up the list.
Head coach Tom Allen said that Bazelak has played well this season, and knows the quarterback will often take blame for offensive mistakes that aren’t fully his fault. And he’s not discounting everything Bazelak’s brought to the offense — after all, it’s not easy being quarterback of a team that throws as much and plays as fast as Indiana does. But the turnovers and negative plays are clearly something Allen is focusing on with his quarterback.
“The two costly picks, there’s many variables that go into those, but that’s a negative thing without question. You can’t just throw everything out because you make a couple mistakes, but you’ve got to understand, those mistakes can’t be made,” Allen said. “Connor, to me, (has continued) to show tremendous toughness, just being able to be so steady in those areas. He’s just got to continue to grow. He’s given us those opportunities (to be in position to win at the end of a game), I believe.”
Simmons stepping up
Cam Camper missed one game with an illness, and D.J. Matthews missed two with a hamstring injury — and he played a limited role in his return against Maryland.
Indiana was already a team that spread the ball around to a lot of different receivers. But those absences forced some secondary and tertiary options to step into bigger roles. Andison Coby made some plays, at times. IU started dialing up more running back screen plays, getting them more involved in the passing game.
But, really, it’s been North Carolina transfer Emery Simmons who’s done the heavy lifting. He’s finished as IU’s leading receiver in each of the last three weeks, totaling 19 catches for 213 yards and a touchdown. The receptions from that three-week span alone already top his totals from all of his three seasons at North Carolina.
His rapport with quarterback Connor Bazelak has only gotten stronger.
“He’s super tough,” Bazelak said. “Does really well on the perimeter with screen-blocking and run-blocking. He’s reliable. Doesn’t drop many passes. And he stepped up when DJ got hurt. It’ll be fun when both of them are healthy and we’ll be able to have them both in at the same time. That’s scary, if you ask me.”
Bazelak’s point about blocking holds up. Fewer than 100 wide receivers across FBS have pass-blocking grades on Pro Football Focus — after all, wide receivers are usually running routes on those downs. But Simmons is in that group, and he rates highly: he ranks eighth among wide receivers in pass-blocking.
Additionally, he’s shown ability to win jump balls, some good route-running, and some big-play flair. Indiana needs to get Matthews back into the fold for its offense to reach its potential, but Simmons is proving his worth and earning a similar role even when that happens.
“It’s been encouraging. He’s playing the way I expected him to play,” Allen said. “His confidence continues to grow. I just love his mindset. He’s such a worker. The way he is every rep is exactly how he practices every single day.”
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