Photo credit - Nebraska communications

Nearly halfway through the season, IU football has far more questions than answers

LINCOLN, Neb. — Indiana football just can’t get out of its own way.

The Hoosiers dropped to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play Saturday with their 35-21 loss at Nebraska (2-3, 1-1). They were shut out in the second half, with just 71 yards of total offense — and only five in the fourth quarter.

Nebraska was coming off a bye week, after just one game with interim head coach Mickey Joseph at the helm. That break gave Joseph more time to settle in and implement changes, and allowed the Cornhuskers time to adapt to those tweaks. And IU head coach Tom Allen said Nebraska threw some looks at the Hoosiers that they weren’t expecting — though he said there are always wrinkles on offense.

But many of Indiana’s wounds Saturday were self-inflicted. The Hoosiers are consistent — they’re making similar mistakes each week.

“It’s hard to say it’s self-inflicted, but you’ve got to step up and take accountability for it,” wide receiver Emery Simmons said. “We’ve had a lot of self-errors. We really could have put ourselves in a better position in this game. But you learn from it. (We’ll) come in and watch film next week.”

Yes, there are some surprises in each game. This week, it was a complete breakdown in punt blocking, allowing the Huskers to get through, untouched, and block a James Evans punt and take it back for a touchdown.

“We didn’t execute on our punt protection, and had a punt blocked — that’s not something that happens to us, usually, but that’s a huge, huge error,” Allen said. “That cannot happen. Really, really frustrating.”

Nebraska gashed IU’s defense in the running game, which IU had previously fared relatively well with.

Offensively, IU has typically done well converting on third downs, with a 47.3 percent conversion rate entering Saturday. But the Hoosiers went 2 for 15 on third down in Lincoln. And an abnormal struggle to get the ball to offensive playmakers — which, in fairness, was an effect of Cam Camper and D.J. Matthews missing the game.

But so much of what plagues IU is the same, week in and week out.

The Hoosiers have yet to figure out their running back situation, and that was an issue again in Lincoln. Freshman Jaylin Lucas provided a spark late in the first half — and he finished as IU’s leading rusher with 39 yards on three carries. And yet, he barely saw the field in the second half, and didn’t get a single touch. Five weeks into the season, IU has not found the best roles for Lucas, Shaun Shivers, and Josh Henderson — and how to properly utilize them — with any consistency.

The offensive line has continued to struggle, despite changes to the lineup. The blocking did improve as the game went on against Nebraska, but the line — and, particularly, right tackle Parker Hanna — had real trouble early in the game that contributed to the slow start. The Hoosiers are nearly halfway through this season and are still unsure of their best combination on the offensive line.

Those slow starts, too, are a major problem. Indiana talked all week about needing to start faster, and made that a clear focus in practice. That emphasis did not pay dividends — IU had to burn a timeout before running a single play, went three-and-out to start the game, and couldn’t score in the first quarter. IU has scored nine total points in the first quarter through five contests. It’s now costing them games.

“I think it’s just executing. We haven’t been able to execute on the first couple drives,” quarterback Connor Bazelak said. “We’ve got to find ways to be aggressive and score touchdown in the first quarter.”

Defensively, coverage lapses in the secondary proved costly once again. IU, in recent weeks, has given up several deep shots that turn into game-changing plays. The 71-yard touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to Trey Palmer gave Nebraska the lead, as freshman Phillip Dunnam was left in single-coverage with no safety help.

The secondary seemed like one of IU’s biggest strengths entering the season, with veteran defensive backs in Tiawan Mullen, Jaylin Williams, Bryant Fitzgerald, Noah Pierre, and others. But they’ve been susceptible to giving up big plays, and it’s becoming an increasing liability.

“It’s definitely frustrating, but those guys are over there on scholarship too. Their guys over there (are) making plays. We’ve just got to make our plays whenever our time comes,” Fitzgerald said. “It definitely is frustrating, but we’ve just got to get back to the drawing board and get back to practice.”

IU is still halfway to bowl eligibility, and much of what’s gone wrong is fixable. But the Hoosiers are making critical mistakes in similar ways every week, and five weeks in, have still not figured out how to clean up.

And if the players and staff can’t find the answers and change things soon, it could be too late.


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