Indiana fumbled the ball on a zone read exchange on the second play of the game on Saturday at Iowa.
“Not ideal, not good,” IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said of the play on Monday after having a chance to review the film of the 34-6 debacle at Iowa City.
The Hoosiers dodged a bullet on that play as quarterback Michael Penix was able to recover the ball and throw it away.
But it signaled things to come — and didn’t take long for not ideal to become total chaos.
Coming off his third season ending injury in three years, Penix had not taken a live snap in more than nine months after not having a normal, healthy offseason since the one that followed his senior year of high school. He hadn’t played in front of a hostile road crowd in nearly two years. Sheridan’s goal was to get his quarterback in a rhythm early at Kinnick Stadium. Instead, two plays in, things already looked frenzied.
On the very next play wideout D.J. Matthews stumbled and then let a Penix pass go through his hands and into the waiting arms of Riley Moss for the first of two gift-wrapped pick-sixes delivered to the Hawkeye defensive back.
Indiana’s offense hasn’t been that generous to the opposition in recent games, but the struggles are part of a larger pattern that extend back to the 2020 season, and in some respects back to the start of Tom Allen era.
Sheridan came to IU to coach the quarterbacks in 2017, following Allen’s first offensive coordinator Mike DeBord from Tennessee. To this point in Allen’s tenure the program has only finished in the top-50 in total offense once — the season after DeBord was fired and before Sheridan took on the OC job. That was 2019 when one-and-done phenom Kalen DeBoer was calling the shots.
Sheridan, a former Michigan quarterback, came with DeBord but he was hired as OC with DeBoer’s enthusiastic recommendation, along with, of course, Allen’s approval. The son of long-time NFL and college coach Bill Sheridan, he has long been thought of as an up-and-comer in the profession. And of course still just nine games into his tenure as OC, it isn’t time to pour cold water on that notion.
But for as special as the 2020 season was, Sheridan’s first season as the OC resulted in IU’s lowest total offense ranking over the last four seasons (94th). While DeBoer seemed to masterfully navigate the Penix injury rollercoaster in 2019, Sheridan’s offense hiccupped at times in 2020 with or without him. His offense has surpassed 27 points just three times in regulation over his first nine games as OC, despite a whole lot of field position assists from the defense.
The bottom line is that Indiana’s offense needs to be much more productive than it has been to this point under Sheridan. That much is clear to see for any casual observer. With far less talent on the field, Hoosier fans recall highly potent and dynamic schemes under former head coach Kevin Wilson and former OC Matt Canada, and they recall the magic of 2019 under DeBoer. Sheridan is of course no casual observer, so he understands as well as anyone the shortcomings to this point.
“Our profession and our job is pretty evaluation friendly, and we didn’t get enough points and we turned the ball over and we gave them 17 points,” Sheridan said of the performance on Saturday.
“It goes without saying we need to do better. I need to coach better.”
On Saturday the game plan had to be recalibrated quickly as the deficit swelled. It was a game plan that Sheridan believes was relatively sound, but drops, poor reads and other mistakes compounded to complicate things for the offense. And those are all mishaps that Sheridan takes full responsibility for too.
“There’s always a handful of plays where you feel like they called a better call than you did,” Sheridan said. “That happens every game no matter who you are, but the focus is on the execution of the plays and the execution of the game plan, and any lack of execution falls on us as a staff to make sure our players fully understand what we’re asking them to do and can do that aggressively for a long period of time.”
Much of the post-game attention was understandably directed at Penix, and that continued into Monday’s press conference. In so many ways, as goes Penix so goes Sheridan. While the second year OC repeatedly shouldered the blame for the offensive struggles at Iowa, he did elaborate when pressed on how his starting quarterback’s mechanics and skills in the pocket impacted the outcome against Iowa.
“I think some of the fundamentals in the moment could be a little tighter, a little better,” Sheridan said of Penix. … “And that’s the difference between big completions and incompletions or tipped passes, the ball location. Sometimes you can get away with those things throughout the course of the week against the scout team, but when you play really good defenses, you can’t. I need to coach him better and make sure he’s got a good base, he’s got his feet underneath him, he’s able to finish his throws and follow through.”
Penix’s week one struggles followed a pattern of slow starts coming off of season ending injuries. He threw two interceptions in the first half against Ball State in 2019, and he had a dismal day against Penn State in 2020 before some late game heroics. With IU in a 31-3 halftime hole in Iowa City, there was really no chance for a midgame recovery, but Sheridan believes a return to Penix’s 2020 All-Big Ten form is indeed coming.
“Mike is a special player and a great kid and I know he is going to do a lot better, and I’m going to coach him better,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan’s challenge is about more than just getting his quarterback ready for the schemes he will face and the fundamentals he must possess. With an NFL arm, there is no doubt a mental side to Penix’s third return from a serious injury.
Will his body hold up? Could he stomach another rehab? Should he even keep subjecting himself to the risk?
Once again, Sheridan has full faith in his quarterback.
“The response that Mike will have will continue to inspire,” Sheridan said.
It is a response that Sheridan in so many ways needs — to inspire hope in his performance as the offensive play-caller.
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