Written By Evan McShane (@veryreasonable)
The Indiana Hoosiers’ defense held their opponent to zero points for the first time since 1993. Indiana dismantled Charleston Southern’s triple option offense en route to a 27-0 victory on Saturday, October 7th. Those unfamiliar with IU football might deem a shutout against an FCS school as something less of an all-time accomplishment. Well, the last time Indiana played an FCS program, the Southern Illinois Salukis put up an unthinkable 47 points on the Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. Indiana escaped with a win by scoring 48 points on that day in 2015 – just a year before the arrival of Tom Allen. Allowing zero points on Saturday means as much to Allen as anyone as this is among the first tangible “breakthrough” moments for the program. Before Allen came to Bloomington, first as the defensive coordinator, Indiana was known for having one of the most porous defenses in all of college football. Teams routinely put up points on the Hoosiers until Allen returned to his home-state and changed the mentality of the defense. “To hold a team to a shutout, first time since 1993, is a big deal,” Allen said, “I think it's hard to do that, no matter who you're playing.”
Not only did Indiana keep Charleston Southern scoreless, but they also prevented the opposition from completing a single pass. That’s right, Charleston Southern finished the game 0-for-10 on passing attempts. Indiana allowed its opponent just six first downs and 134 rushing yards on a pedestrian 3.0 yards-per-carry. After witnessing the defensive units of years past, some Indiana fans probably thought a shutout was impossible. Two years later with Tom Allen, defensive mastermind, and a shutout is something fans have been waiting for. Among the many gripes during Kevin Wilson’s tenure, putting away inferior teams was always a major concern. Wilson’s teams would consistently put up duds against smaller and lower ranked schools. This new coaching staff appears determined not to let that happen – as evidenced by blowout victories over Georgia Southern and Charleston Southern this season. The turnaround began in 2015 with Tom Allen taking over as defensive coordinator. The Hoosiers held Florida International to 13 points and Ball State to 20 points in Allen’s first two games last season. Stout defensive play has become something of the norm in a remarkably short amount of time. The shutout last weekend feels like Allen’s culture-change has come full circle.
Allen said with conviction in his press conference on Monday, “I don't care who you play, it's still confidence. You played well, you got a shutout, they're hard to get.” He continued, “We take a lot of pride in our defense here and our kids work really, really hard. So we made a big deal about the shutout to them, once they got it.” Tom Allen placed a lot of emphasis on growing even more as a defense following the initial transformation in 2015. He went as far as to set a goal of becoming a top-25 ranked defense nationally, and perhaps pitching a shutout someday. Allen explained, “That's all they were talking about was wanting to keep that preserved and a lot of pride in wanting to be a top-25 defense.” Tom Allen doubled down on the importance of staying focused regardless of the opponent. He explained, “It doesn't matter who you play, you just want to be, whoever is out there, you want to play well. I understand that they're not a Big Ten football team, so we're not going to overblow that and make it bigger than it is, but I do know and I've been here long enough, been a lot of places long enough to know that that doesn't always happen.” Allen put it plain and simple, “So we played 1-AA teams in the past and gave up almost 50 points, and not that long ago. You don't take anything for granted.” It’s that kind of mentality that yields shutouts. It’s that kind of focus required to defeat the teams you’re supposed to beat.
An Indiana football fan could see the improvement last year in the way Hoosier players tackled. There was a noticeable difference in the way they pursued the football, minimized big plays, and got themselves off the field on third down. Bloomington, Indiana is becoming a place where high school football players will want to come play defense. Led by Chris Covington and Tegray Scales, Indiana’s linebacking corps has been stellar this season. Covington earned defensive player of the game honors from the coaching staff for his play against Charleston Southern. Here’s what Tom Allen had to say of Covington and Scales: “Extremely productive day, continues to play well, could have gotten it in another couple games. He and Tegray continue to lead the way in both production and leadership, which is what I demand and ask of them for that position. They're doing a great job. So really proud of Chris's growth.” While it was the secondary that got a lot of attention this offseason, the Hoosiers also boast a ton of depth at linebacker. Allen had encouraging words regarding the play of two redshirt junior linebackers, Mike McGinnis and Dameon Willis. Allen said, “Also thought Mike McGinnis continues to improve at linebacker, encouraged by his growth. Dameon Willis played well also, had one critical mistake that gave up a -- their only explosive run of the whole day came on a mistake -- but other than that I thought he played well and we need to continue to bring those guys along.”
Allen also doubled down on his team’s quest to become a top-25 defense. Saturday’s performance certainly helped Indiana move up in some statistical categories. The head coach reaffirmed, “I made a big deal, will continue to, we want to be a top-25 defense, that's our stated objective and as the season progresses, and we have had to face a couple high-powered offenses within our conference and so we just continue to fight and claw and scratch to get back into the top 25.” Allen and his players are excited put their defense on display against conference opponents. In case you didn’t think Allen and his staff kept track of the defensive rankings, Allen laid out a series of benchmarks during his press conference: “We're now 24th in third downs, 24th in sacks, 23rd in tackles for loss, and second in the country for three-and-outs.” Not lacking for detail, Allen continued to explain his team’s progress on the defensive side of the ball, “All our other numbers continue to go down as we progress through the season and just keep getting better as a unit and that's the kind of the stats, they always can get skewed, it's really how you end up is really kind of how it's going to be ultimately judged.”
Maybe some fans or skeptics think creating goals based on statistical rankings isn’t effective, but Allen is proving otherwise. It’s a tangible way for Indiana’s players and coaches to gauge their success, so long as they understand how numbers can be skewed, as Allen mentioned. The players are fully bought-in. Allen described, “We put that out there as being our goal and so I want to make sure we understand what we're moving towards.” The Hoosiers will have their hands full with the top-25 ranked Michigan Wolverines coming to town next week. However, Michigan’s strength is their defense, not their offense. They also come to Bloomington with an injured starting quarterback. Perhaps this is the Indiana defense’s perfect opportunity to shine on a big-time stage against a big-time opponent.
Allen described the excitement in the air, “Very much looking forward to this weekend, chance to play the Michigan Wolverines at home for Homecoming. Expecting a big crowd for this game and really excited to be able to compete for all of our former players that will be here, all of our students, everyone that's associated with our university that's both alumni as well as our fans that are going to be supporting us here and all across the country.” It will be the Indiana Hoosiers’ next shot at a breakthrough. As Tom Allen previously mentioned, “breakthrough” is not about one game, it’s about an identity change. While that statement rings true, a breakthrough requires big victories, and this weekend provides the Hoosiers with another chance.