Through the first six games, Indiana’s defense was its saving grace, and the only reason some of its games were even close.
But after yielding 1,037 yards and 92 points over the last two contests, it now suddenly appears nothing can save the sinking ship that is IU’s 2021 season.
The pass defense has been the main culprit, allowing 771 of those 1,037 yards, and while Indiana appeared to be surviving a wave of injuries in its secondary earlier in the season, the wheels have now seemingly come off.
Both starting safeties, Devon Matthews and Raheem Layne, have missed time this season, and at Maryland top backup Josh Sanguinetti was out. It sounds as though that will continue to be the case on Saturday at Michigan, with Sanguinetti described as “pretty doubtful” by head coach Tom Allen on Thursday.
The larger issue has been at cornerback, where Jaylin Williams has missed time, Chris Keys is out for the season, and Larry Tracy transferred. More problematic, starters Reese Taylor and Tiawan Mullen have been out for three and four straight games, respectively, save for some false starts by both players where they tried to play through their injuries and found out they could not.
The injuries have meant fatigue and a lack of cohesion among those who remain. Williams played 88 of 91 total snaps at corner against Maryland and Noah Pierre played 73. Safeties Matthews and Layne played 91 and 90, respectively. For a defense that likes to rotate two and three deep, those numbers reflect both that IU isn’t comfortable going further down the depth chart, and highlight at least in part why the pass defense collapsed in the second half at Maryland.
Pierre, who has played safety, husky and now cornerback in the IU defense has been picked on the last couple games after a strong showing against Michigan State. According to PFF he had the lowest coverage grade against Maryland except for Mullen, who was clearly ineffective when he tried to play.
Defensive coordinator Charlton Warren has had to shy away from more complex schemes to make sure that someone like Pierre is able to execute give his limited time at corner.
“We definitely have simplified things and did things to make things a little bit easier, but we’ve got to be careful to not do so much that we make it easier for an offense to operate and stay on the field,” Warren said.
Mullen and Taylor practiced some this week, but they still sound like game time decisions. Even if they play, Indiana will be faced with an entirely different kind of challenge on Saturday in Ann Arbor that would in many make their presence less impactful than it could have been the last two weeks.
“It’s (Michigan’s) a very different looking offense than they’ve been the last couple of years in the way they’ve — kind of a little more back to what it was in a lot of ways before,” head coach Tom Allen said. “And especially with the multiple formations and personnel groupings and different things and emphasis on running the football.
“So less of a spread mindset, more of a two tight ends and multiple looks and kind of the way, like I said, they were in the past. But it’s been very good for them.”
Michigan runs the ball on 62.3 percent of its plays. Their rushing offense generates 239.9 yards per game, good for No. 7 in the country. They are led by a two-headed monster of Blake Corum (774 yards, 6 ypc, 10 TDs) and Hassan Haskins (661 yards, 4.8 ypc, 10 TDs).
“You can just tell from the very beginning of the season that was what they wanted to be able to do was establish the run game. And they’ve done a really good job of that,” Allen said.
While Indiana has a lot of problems on both sides of the football, its run defense has been the least of them. The Hoosiers rank No. 36 nationally against the run and have allowed just 127.4 yards per contest. That is a particularly impressive figure when considering game flow. Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State all had big leads and leaned on the running game as those contests progressed.
If the Hoosiers can get healthier in the secondary while continuing to be effective stopping the run, they could have a chance to at least keep this game closer than what the point spread (Michigan -20) suggests.
Indiana faced a similarly difficult challenge when it faced Michigan State a few weeks ago, and Warren hopes his unit can carry over some of its success from that contest.
“You have to have set edges, keep the ball in between your defenders, and you have to swarm with effort and energy on every play,” Warren said of the keys to stopping Michigan’s running game. … “So, for us it’s about playing our base fundamentals and rules, setting edges, and allowing our defense to run the ball down from inside out. We can’t let that ball crease us with their gap scheme. We also can’t let it out flank us with their perimeter run.”
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