Written By T.J. Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Week 1 Primer
What: Indiana Hoosiers at Florida International Panthers
When: Thursday, September 1 at 7:30 pm
Where: FIU Stadium in Miami, Florida
How to Watch: The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and you can listen to the radio broadcast on the IU Radio Network.
What’s at Stake: The Indiana Hoosiers are trying to go to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1990-1991 and a win in the season opener is hugely important to accomplishing that goal. A loss at FIU would give the Panthers their first win over a Big Ten opponent in program history and it would lessen IU’s margin for further error during the remainder of the season to an uncomfortably low level. Keep in mind that the Big Ten is now playing nine conference games so the road to six wins is tougher than it was a season ago. In addition, 12 Hoosiers hail from the Sunshine State and they’d love to get a win for IU playing in front of their friends and family in their home state.
A Few Things to Look For
Can Preseason Confidence Translate to In-Game Performance?
The Indiana Hoosiers have finished last or next to last in the Big Ten in total defense in each of Kevin Wilson’s five seasons in Bloomington. It’s fair to be pessimistic about the buzz surrounding IU’s defense throughout this past offseason. However, there’s a genuine belief within the locker room that things are going to be a bit different this season and that a new era of defense has begun in Bloomington. New defensive coordinator Tom Allen and new defensive line coach Mark Hagen talked all offseason about holding the defense to the same standards the offense is consistently held to. That doesn’t mean the defense will suddenly finish near the top of the Big Ten in total defense. However, the defensive players responded throughout offseason practices and it was clear that they were working with a different level of energy and an increased sense of confidence. On paper, IU’s secondary and linebacker corps figures to be better than it was a season ago based strictly on growth and experience. The defensive line is a major concern that has been written about at length on this site and elsewhere but there’s some talent and it’s not a stretch to think the group could be okay if they stay healthy.
FIU will be a tough test for the new defense and there will be growing pains as the players learn to trust the system and instinctually act instead of over-thinking and eventually missing or being late on assignments. The Panthers gained more than 400 yards against the Hoosiers a season ago and they return nine starters, including quarterback Alex McGough (23 career starts), tight end Jonnu Smith, receiver Thomas Owens (who absolutely killed IU in 2015) and running back Alex Gardner plus a veteran offensive line. Kevin Wilson said the defense “won the offseason” and earning the praise of the head coach is a noteworthy accomplishment. However, the truly meaningful results must start showing up on Thursday. If IU’s defense is shredded by FIU, the pessimism surrounding this unit will return in spades and there may be some doubt begin to creep into the locker room. However, a solid start for the defense could create momentum and Tom Allen’s teachings can be bolstered by positive on-field results.
Picking Up Where They Left Off?
Indiana’s offense was tremendous in 2015. That’s not news to anyone reading this site. They led the Big Ten in total offense, two linemen finished as All-Americans, Nate Sudfeld was outstanding, the running game was often dominant and a trio of wide receivers had fantastic seasons. Jordan Howard missed a large chunk of the 2015 campaign so he doesn’t feel like a personnel loss but still, he’s gone. As are both Jason Spriggs and Nate Sudfeld, the most prolific passer in Indiana history. That being said, expectations are high for the 2016 version of the offense. Kevin Wilson and offensive coordinator Kevin Johns have a track record of producing top level attacks, regardless of personnel and the Hoosiers still have a ton of weapons. We’ve spent the majority of the offseason thinking about the options Indiana has at running back, the experience they have at offensive line and wide receiver and the depth they have in the skill position groups. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow has been named the starter and he’ll be making his FBS debut on the road on Thursday night in primetime, something that could be a cause for concern if he’s playing tight or overly nervous. FIU will be breaking in six new defensive starters and the Hoosiers had 439 yards against them a year ago. It’d be unwise to expect the offense to clicking on all cylinders in week one: Camion Patrick is out for a few weeks plus this is Richard Lagow’s first start and some growing pains are understandable. However, look for Indiana to lean on their veteran offensive line and their stable of running backs early and often to try and wear down the Panthers and take a week one back to Bloomington.
Devine Redding, Mike Majette, Devante Williams, Tyler Natee, Cole Gest, Clyde Newton, Ricky Brookins and Alex Rodriguez (maybe even Kiante Enis but he appears to be exclusively at slot receiver right now) could all see action at running back. How will the carries be distributed? Will Zander Diamont see any snaps as a change of pace quarterback? Will true freshman tackle Coy Cronk see the field after a sterling offseason and glowing praise from the coaches? After the top three receivers, how will the receiver rotation shake out? Things will change from week to week but we’ll have a heck of a lot more answers to these questions after Thursday night than we do right now.
Key Areas: Takeaways and Red Zone
While Indiana’s offense was terrific a season ago, the red zone scoring left a little to be desired and improvement in that area could help the offense become even more high-powered in 2016. The Hoosiers had 61 red zone attempts, ran for 21 touchdowns and threw for 15 touchdowns for a total of 36 touchdowns in 61 trips. That’s not terrible and IU converted quite a few field goals when forced to settle for that but, with an offense as good as IU had, you’d expect a little better. IU’s coaches have talked about trying to find ways to finish more drives with touchdowns instead of field goals and it will be interesting to see what play calling or scheme tweaks they’ve made. Do we see some triple option with Diamont or Tyler Natee? Do we see more red zone targets for big receivers like Simmie Cobbs or Nick Westbrook or Jordan Fuchs? Thursday night will be a good test for the red zone offense because FIU has finished the past two seasons inside of the top 20 nationally in red zone defense.
The other area to keep an eye on is one that helped Indiana knock off Florida International a year ago: takeaways. I use “takeaways” instead of “turnovers” here to help drive home an emphasis that Tom Allen and his staff have used all offseason. The defense focuses on taking the ball away and being aggressive in pursuing possession. Mistakes from the offense are to be created by the attacking defense. That’s the goal anyway. The Hoosiers weren’t particularly adept at this a season ago and they haven’t been for as long as I can remember but there’s a hope that guys like Marcus Oliver, Tegray Scales, Jonathan Crawford, Chase Dutra and others will step up and create the “takeaways” the defensive staff is striving for and has worked on all offseason. FIU played Indiana fairly even last season but they lost two fumbles and threw an interception, losing the turnover battle by two and, ultimately, the game by two touchdowns. Winning the turnover battle in this matchup once again would be a big step towards securing the opening night victory.
Names to Know
-The stars of the Florida International offense should be familiar to IU fans that watched last year’s contest. Alex McGough returns at quarterback, Alex Gardner is back at running back and top targets Thomas Owens (166 yards and two TDs against IU last season) and Jonnu Smith are the guys to keep an eye on when the Panthers have the ball.
-Their defensive line is a major concern as they must replace their top three linemen from 2015. The best defender they have returning is linebacker Anthony Wint, a steady tackler in the middle of the defense. Both of their starting corners from last season graduated so there are question marks in the secondary as well. The top safety is sophomore Tyree Johnson who had a very solid freshman season.
-Keep an eye on backup running back Anthony Jones. He’s a sophomore that ran for 243 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry as a true freshman in 2015.
-We’ve covered each of these players in our Countdown or in our position previews (or on the podcast) but a refresher prior to the game could be helpful. So, newcomers (or RS players playing for IU for the first time) that IU fans can expect to hear from on Thursday night: QB Richard Lagow, RB Cole Gest, WR Kiante Enis, WR Taysir Mack, WR Phil Benker, WR Isaac James, TE Austin Dorris, TE Ian Thomas, OL Coy Cronk, DL Ja’Merez Bowen, DL Brandon Wilson, DL Allen Stallings, LB Reakwon Jones, DB Marcelino Ball, DB Jayme Thompson, DB Wesley Green, DB Khalil Bryant, DB A’Shon Riggins, P Joseph Gedeon