It is a riddle Indiana offensive coordinators haven’t been able to solve since the days of Jordan Howard and Tevin Coleman.
How can you keep defenses honest and effectively run the football against the top-tier competition in the Big Ten?
Tom Allen and his new offensive coordinator Walt Bell seem to be on the same page in several ways, including the program culture. And when it comes to the underpinnings of a successful offense, Bell is singing from the same song sheet as Allen.
“No.1, no matter what level of football you’re at, you have to effectively run,” Bell said on Sunday at his introductory press conference.
It is one thing to say it, and an entirely different thing to accomplish when the titans of the Big Ten show up on the other side of the ball. For each of the last six seasons — the same six seasons Allen has been in Bloomington including one as the defensive coordinator under Kevin Wilson — the Hoosiers have never been better than No. 80 nationally in rushing yards per game, and they’ve been No. 106 or worse each of the last three campaigns.
INDIANA IN THE RUSHING YARDS PER GAME RANKINGS
- 2021: No. 113
- 2020: No. 114
- 2019: No. 106
- 2018: No. 80
- 2017: No. 106
- 2016: No. 92
- 2015: No. 26
- 2014: No. 10
- 2013: No. 30
If you want to know how Allen got comfortable with his new offensive coordinator despite a 3-23 run as the head coach at UMass, you probably don’t need to look any further than Bell’s track record as an OC in the Big Ten East.
Bell went through seven starting quarterbacks in two seasons at Maryland, but he still produced the No. 43 rushing offense in 2016 and the No. 69 rushing offense in 2017. Before allowing for sacks, Bell’s offense ran for over 300 yards in 2016 against Allen’s IU defense, and 184 in 2017, and the Terps averaged 39 points against respectable Allen defenses those two seasons.
Bell did much more running the football at Maryland despite a quarterback carousel than what Indiana was able to pull off in 2021. The Terps averaged 200 per game on the ground in 2016, and 162 in 2017, compared to Indiana’s 114 this past season. While it wasn’t quite Indiana’s 264 a game in 2014 despite Zander Diamont at the helm at quarterback, Bell proved he could run the ball at a much more acceptable rate even with inexperienced quarterbacks.
Now of course you are correct to wonder, can Bell magically flip Indiana’s offensive line to respectability? Because while two guys who are still in the NFL, Coleman and Howard, are not walking through that door, neither are former Hoosier offensive linemen still in the league — Dan Feeney and Jason Spriggs.
Bell knows evaluating what he’s got on the line and how they fit what he wants to do will be job one. While there was some thought that members of Nick Sheridan’s offensive staff might follow him to the exits, that didn’t happen. Now Bell hopes continuity on the coaching staff will help to expedite the process of pairing talents with scheme.
“Getting to know your personnel is the first learning curve,” he said. “An advantage here is there has been so much hold over on the offensive staff. They’ve already built relationships. They know how to challenge our players and know what they can and can’t do.”
With the transfer portal wide-open and Indiana no doubt evaluating options at multiple positions including quarterback, it could be a few weeks before Bell even fully knows the range of personnel options he’ll have in 2022. It is once the full complement of players is on the table when Bell can attempt to develop a strategy to effectively run the football.
“How you get that done is some quarterback driven, some systematically driven and with the offensive line and personnel. Where are your better players? How can you create matchup (advantages)?” Bell said of establishing the running game.
While he got it done at Indiana in part due to the NFL caliber talent at running back and on the line, Wilson was also highly effective at using ultra-fast tempo to establish the running game. That’s something Bell has a reputation for as well, but it isn’t clear just yet how much tempo will come to define his scheme at IU.
When IU survived Western Kentucky’s lightning-fast pace in September, Allen acknowledged it is a very difficult defense to defend, but also said he believes you need an accurate quarterback to pull it off.
Perhaps in part because he doesn’t know what he’s got personnel-wise, to this point Bell is non-committal on what role the tempo aspect will play.
“It’s different things for different places,” Bell said. “That’s a reflection of what Coach Allen wants. It can be week to week or an all-time thing.
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