Indiana’s best half of offensive football this season came against Louisville in Indianapolis in week three.
The Hoosiers racked up 250 yards in that half alone, just a bit under the 252 they averaged per game against Ohio State, Akron and Maryland.
Of course Indiana had no choice but to force the issue when they fell behind 21-0 to the Cardinals just over two weeks ago. But the product on the field was a notable departure from what we’ve seen through most of the other seven halves against FBS-level competition this season.
Last Monday, now fired offensive coordinator Walt Bell said the identity of this Indiana offense was “a run-first football team with an option element.”
That second half against Louisville was the one time this season Indiana meaningfully strayed from that identity. The Hoosiers played up-tempo, often snapping the ball in the first 20 seconds of the play clock, and they mainly used three and four wide receiver formations.
On IU’s final four offensive plays of the Louisville game, that resulted in a turnover on downs at the 1-yard line, Indiana ran the ball all four times. But prior to that final set of downs, IU had passed 19 times to eight rushes in the second half — and they sustained multiple drives of more than 80 yards along the way.
Indiana’s failure on 4th-and-inches at the goal line vs. Louisville was the beginning of the end for Bell, who seemed to over think short yardage situations on multiple occasions this season.
But the fact that Bell seemed to completely ignore what Jackson and his receivers delivered in that second half vs. Louisville, and instead reverted to his preferred identity — that’s what really cemented his demise at IU.
Quarterback Tayven Jackson was asked after the Louisville game how the offense could replicate the second half performance going forward.
“Maybe we can play like we’re down,” Jackson said.
He was clearly in his comfort zone in that second half at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Once we started playing fast, I’m used to that, it brings out all of us as a group of quarterbacks and receivers, we all know how to play fast, and when we play fast we play free,” he said.
After the Ohio State game quarterback Brendan Sorsby said something similar after he experienced some success throwing the football late in that contest.
Playing a more wide-open, fast-paced style is more natural to both quarterbacks. Neither is an option quarterback, nor do they have any meaningful experience in an option system. To be sure, Jackson said he’s comfortable in the option, but it wasn’t the kind of ringing endorsement you might expect from, say, a quarterback who signed up to play for Barry Switzer at Oklahoma in the 80s.
And while they’ve dealt with some injuries, Indiana’s receivers are a strength of this team. It makes sense to get more of them on the field at once and put more vertical pressure on opposing defenses. Perhaps that will create more space to throw underneath to Jaylin Lucas.
Indiana doesn’t really have the personnel to be a smash-mouth, run-first football team. Let’s face it, if they couldn’t pull it off vs. Akron, it ain’t happening the rest of the way. That’s why it was rather shocking to hear Bell describe his view of the offensive identity — after the Akron game, when IU’s running game was anemic.
New offensive coordinator Rod Carey played football at IU in the early 90s, and he’s been in the game as a coach ever since. So he is far better equipped to judge what kind of offensive approach is best for his personnel than this author.
But if he looks for markers of success, and listens to his quarterbacks, we suspect he won’t land on a run-first approach with an option element.
We’ll find out right away how willing Carey and head coach Tom Allen are to open up this offense.
After a week off the Hoosiers face Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It was clear the plan in week one against Ohio State was to be conservative on offense and try to keep the game close. Indiana can go with that plan and surely lose 23-3 again, or something like that. We may even write that there were promising signs in the 20-point loss if they manage to keep it that close.
Or they can take off the training wheels and see what happens.
It could go horribly wrong.
But at least Indiana will be making an effort to play to their strengths.
And they’ll be making an effort to win rather than just stay close.
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