Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
One-third of the way into the season, the Hoosiers were two-thirds of their way to bowl eligibility. Now two-thirds of the way through the season, Indiana is still stuck at four wins. It's not hard to point fingers at either side of the ball, as neither has been overly consistent throughout the year. You can even throw special teams in after last weekend's performance in East Lansing. But the effort by the defense the last few weeks has been downright atrocious, after what seemed to be four decent weeks in which there were definite signs of improvement.
First, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that the Hoosiers defense was great prior to this four game skid, but they were doing just enough to give this team a chance to win. Sure, they were still giving up some big plays, but they were forcing turnovers regularly and were able to get their opponent off the field on third down with some degree of consistency.
So what exactly is going on? Well, really, it's a culmination of multiple things that has led to the rapid descent of the Indiana defense. As you can see in the graph, the Hoosiers have improved against the rush by a considerable amount since defensive coordinator Brian Knorr joined the team. However, they are getting exploited through the air to the tune of 342.1 yards per game, which ranks 126 of 127 FBS teams. Whatever progress was made last fall has been negated and the team's pass defense is now performing at a level worse than when Doug Mallory was defensive coordinator, not a great look for a team with bowl aspirations.
Indiana's defense is susceptible to giving up big plays in the passing game for multiple reasons, first of which is an inexperienced secondary that is sorely lacking depth of any kind. We along with everyone else who covers Indiana football warned during the summer that the secondary would make or break this season, and right now, things are severely fractured.
So not only are the younger players in over their heads, they are also getting worn down. That's what happens when you are forced to rely on five true freshman defensive backs at different times throughout the season. However, they are far from the only ones to blame for the defense's performance against the pass, as Indiana's pass rush has been somewhat lackluster at moments this fall.
I know what you are saying, 'but Nick, the Hoosiers are averaging 2.6 sacks per game, their best since Greg Middleton and Jamie Kirlew were lining up at defensive end.' And while I'll agree that this team has improved in that area by a considerable margin since last season, Chris Laviano and Connor Cook were still able to step up in the pocket and find open targets regularly. The Hoosiers got to the Rutgers quarterback just once on 43 throws and got to the MSU signal caller just two times on 52 attempts.
I know this next point might sound somewhat nitpicky, as it is out of the Hoosiers hands to a degree, but they are only dropping quarterbacks for an average loss of 4.7 yards per sack, which ranks 121 in the nation. What's the big deal you might ask? Well, for a team that is giving up third-and-longs on a regular basic, it can use every yard it can get.
Bringing me to the next major issue, getting opponents off the field when you have the opportunity to do so. Rutgers converted 12 of 20 of the third down attempts and Michigan State converted 13 of 20, you're not going to win many games that way. In fact, a large majority of MSU's conversions, as mentioned above, came on third-and-long, which is about nearly as demoralizing as giving up points. On the year the team is allowing opposing offenses to convert nearly 45 percent of their third downs, which is only marginally better than the 2013 team's 47 percent.
Finally, more of a summary of how the team has been doing overall when taking their opponent into consideration, we see that the Indiana defense has failed to keep any of their opponents under their total offense season average. Week one, as we all knew at the time, was a pretty disastrous performance, with the slight caveat that the team was without multiple starters and key contributors against Southern Illinois. The next four games weren't stalwart efforts be any means, but as I said above, the defense was doing just enough to keep the game close until the offense was able to get things going. The Penn State game is an interesting case, as the team was without multiple offensive weapons, leading to short offensive drives, which forced the defense to spend over 35 minutes out on the field. For a team that is already facing depth issues, not a recipe for success on defense.
The last two weeks the group regressed back to what we saw against the Salukis, as both the Scarlet Knights and Spartans were able to move the ball with utter ease, especially through the air. Both teams were well above their typical offensive output, in fact, Indiana made both offenses look like belong in the Big 12 the way that they were pitching and catching the pigskin. Also important to note, Rutgers had the ball for over 35 minutes of the game and Michigan State had possession for 38 minutes. As Coach Wilson has said in the past in response to such numbers, the defense just has to find a way to get off of the field, instead of placing the blame on the Hoosiers quick scoring offense.
I'm not calling for anybody's job, this is merely meant to showcase the areas in which this team really needs to focus on in the following weeks, as the time is now for this program. Players and coaches alike need to leave it all on the field during the final month of the regular season. This team has had multiple great individual performances on defense this year, now if this team can get the same tenacity and effort out of three or four of their playmakers on the same afternoon, then you're onto something. Otherwise, the Indiana offense will need to prepare itself for more shootouts the rest of the way, something Wilson and his staff surely want to avoid, especially when the team's most winnable remaining games on the schedule are on the road, in late November.