IU football: Tom Allen still views run game as key to Indiana’s season

Tom Allen spent most of Big Ten Media Days talking about how proud he is of the players on his roster and the confidence he has going into what could be the first season since 1968 that Indiana will begin as a nationally ranked team. He itemized the Hoosiers strengths from the quarterback position to the long snapper, and was not shy about saying that he believes a Big Ten championship is a possible outcome in 2021.

But he was also clear-eyed about where the Hoosiers need to get better to have a chance to get to play and win on Dec. 4 in Indianapolis. He listed three areas — one on offense, defense and special teams — where the Hoosiers need to be better in 2021 than they were in 2020.

And the biggest priority on offense is the same as it was when the spring practice session began.

“We can be better in offense in running the football,” Allen said.

The Hoosiers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring offense in 2020, they had the fifth best passing offense in the conference and their starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., led the Big Ten in passing yards per game, throwing for 274.2 per game before his season-ending ACL tear. However, the run game struggled throughout the year as the Hoosiers finished 12th in the conference in rushing yards per game (108.6 ypg) and 13th in yards per attempt (3.1).

The run game was functional around the goal line, as the Hoosiers rushed for 12 of their 28 touchdowns on the season. However, their go-to running back in that and all situations — Stevie Scott — left for the NFL after rushing for 10 of those 12 touchdowns. Penix accounted for the other two touchdowns, so the Hoosiers don’t return another running back who scored a touchdown last season at Indiana. Scott also accounted for 561 of their 869 rushing yards.

So the Hoosiers headed into the offseason needing to identify a new running back and also develop new schemes to pick up yards. Allen said after the season that the run game needed to be more “multiple” and was vanilla in 2020 in part because of the strange run-up to the season caused by the pandemic. Camp started late, the Hoosiers dealt with cases and contact tracing early on, and that generally made it difficult to be creative.

The Hoosiers tried to use the spring to add more to the scheme. Allen has been quiet about what exactly that means, but says he likes the direction it headed.

“I like the progress that we made,” Allen said. “We definitely want to build on it at fall camp.”

Just as important to the progress of the run game was the addition of USC transfer Stephen Carr, who came along after the spring practice session, committing to the Hoosiers in the middle of May. Carr, who finds himself on the Doak Walker watch list, is a former five-star recruit who rushed for 1,319 yards and 12 touchdowns in four seasons for the Trojans.

Carr isn’t guaranteed the starting job, but his presence increases the level of competition. Running backs Tim Baldwin Jr. and Sampson James are back after combining for 237 yards on 54 carries last season with Baldwin averaging a team-best 6.4 yards per carry among rushers with at least 10 carries. James, a four-star recruit from Avon High School, is one of the highest-rated recruits of all time.

‘That’s a critical part, going out and getting a guy like Stephen Carr to give us some more depth at a critical position,” Allen said. “We’ve got some very good players at that position. Several of them are untested. That just gives us more opportunities to be able to get guys in the position to make plays.”

The Hoosiers return three of their five returning staring offensive linemen including Outland Trophy watch lister Matthew Bedford, but Allen still views the backs as the most important piece of the run game.

“The O-line for sure set the tone, but the guy with the ball in his hands, that’s what makes it special,” Allen said. “The Good Lord decides who the running backs are. It’s a God-given talent to be able to take the football and make a guy miss. That to me is really, really, really the key to have the right guys with the ball in hand and doing a great job schematically giving the guys a chance to be successful.”

In Penix, the Hoosiers have a quarterback that can add to the running game, and one they hope can add more than he did a year ago. Despite the ACL tear he had to spend the offseason rehabbing from, wide receiver Ty Fryfogle said Penix is more athletic than he was a year ago when he rushed for two touchdowns and the two-point conversion that beat Penn State. Penix considers his contribution to the run game important and wants to at least be able to be a valuable diversion for the running game.

“The run game is definitely something a team needs,” Penix said. “That opens up the pass plays. For a quarterback, if I have run reads, I can pull the ball and make them respect it. Carry out my fakes and stuff, make them respect me, even if I can just pull one guy out of the box. I feel like we take that very seriously.”

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