There is no way around the fact that the start of the 2021 IU football season has been a disappointment. And the reason why the Hoosiers are 2-3 to start a highly anticipated campaign that Indiana opened ranked No. 17 isn’t real complicated.
It isn’t just that IU has played three of the current top-5 teams in the AP Top-25, including two of those three on the road. That alone would obviously be a recipe for a slow start by most. But where things have really gotten sideways is one key stat across those three contests. Indiana committed a total of nine turnovers in its games against current No. 3 Iowa, No. 4 Penn State and No. 5 Cincinnati. Nine.
While the Hoosiers opened the season at Iowa with “Indiana” misspelled on a player’s jersey, those cream and crimson uniforms still didn’t read “Alabama” — and thus they left themselves no chance to win with their bevy of giveaways.
It is easy to see how IU might have defeated Cincinnati if they took care of the football. But in that game, and certainly the games against Penn State and Iowa, an inept offense has been leaving the Hoosiers with no margin for error. They have averaged just 10 points per game in the three contests against top-5 teams, and even when factoring in the other two games against FCS Idaho and Group of Five Western Kentucky, the offense is grading out as one of the country’s worst.
IU is No. 107 (out of 130) in total offense, No. 102 in rushing offense, and No. 120 in team passing efficiency. And when they do manage to put together a drive, the Hoosiers aren’t finding the end zone. They rank No. 102 in red zone offense.
Entering the bye week with a 2-3 record, preseason goals such as winning the Big Ten and playing in the CFP are no longer attainable. Instead the focus shifts to salvaging bowl eligibility for a third straight season, something the program hasn’t achieved since the 80s. And while the Hoosiers still have three games against current top-11 programs — Michigan State (11), Ohio State (7) and Michigan (9), there are at least four winnable games against Maryland, Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue. Somehow IU has to find four wins against those seven opponents to reach the postseason, and to do it they have to fix their broken offense.
With no opponent to prepare for this week, the scout going on inside Memorial Stadium is a deep, long gaze into the mirror. Each coordinator has been preparing their own self-examination over the last few days, and they are reporting back to head coach Tom Allen today.
“We’ll have a self scout that the guys are going to be giving to me on Wednesday,” Allen said earlier this week.
And while Allen will look with interest at the reports he receives from the defensive and special teams coordinators, it is his meeting with offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan where he expects to painstakingly seek answers.
“Offensively, yes, that will be the focus and to be able to go through and the numbers don’t lie,” Allen said.
He laid out the three primary areas he is most concerned with when it comes to the offense through five games.
“The areas to focus on to me would be the run game No. 1, quarterback play, No. 2., and then red zone, No. 3 would be the areas that I would really want to be able to focus on to allow us to evaluate why we’re not being effective in those areas because we need to be. We’ve shown some glimpses at times, not very many on Saturday night (against Penn State), but you’ve got to look at the whole big picture, all five games. We’ll do a thorough analysis of our offense, where we’re at, what we need to address, and how we can get where we need to be.”
The running game to this point has been predictable, with Sheridan favoring a three yards and a cloud of dust approach on the early downs. He seemed to find a bit of a gadget weapon with D.J. Matthews on sweeps and reverses, but that dynamic was lost when Matthews suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Allen cited both the offensive line and the running backs as contributors to the shortcomings on the ground, but the entire scheme seems flawed. Sheridan seems intent on running the ball like he has his alma mater’s personnel when Bo Schembechler was the head coach, but he doesn’t.
The No. 120 pass efficiency rating tells the story when it comes to the quarterback play. Michael Penix, Jr. has thrown seven interceptions while completing just 53.7 percent of his throws. Allen will examine the quarterback play this week not certain if Penix will be able to play when his team returns to action on Oct. 16. But even if Penix can go, the question right now is whether Allen might make a change anyway. Penix’s poor play has become a pattern, and even in his best game against Western Kentucky he struggled to lead the Hoosiers into the end zone, instead settling for four field goals.
Allen seems to have liked what he saw from backup Jack Tuttle on Saturday night at Penn State.
“Very confident in Jack. I think I mentioned, even in the preseason, that I felt we had two proven starters [at quarterback] on this team,” Allen said. “As you saw him come in the game on Saturday, he is very decisive in his decision making – both to throw and to run. Just his maturity over time and the experience he got last year, being able to lead us on the road at Wisconsin and then to show a tremendous amount of toughness to play through an injury in the bowl game. Just his growth as a player, as a leader, he is highly respected by his teammates and brings an energy, as well, that you can see.”
Over the next few days, before the focus turns back to game week and Michigan State, Allen is going to have to decide if he has seen enough out of Tuttle to go ahead and name him as the starter and give him all of the first team reps. Perhaps Penix’s health status will make that choice for him, but Allen needs to definitively make the decision based on performance, because his fifth season as the IU head coach is at a crossroads.
The Michigan State game is going to be critical for IU. The Hoosiers cannot afford to fall to 2-4 on the season before a high probability loss to Ohio State the following week.
So Allen has to find answers with the offense right now, and he has to make the right call when it comes to his starting quarterback.
And based on what we’ve seen thus far through five weeks, it appears to be the right time to hand over the starting job to Tuttle, irrespective of where Penix stands.
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