Written By: Nick Holmes (@HoosierHolmes)
Before the Hoosiers defense even took the field they were facing an uphill battle.
Prior to kickoff the team announced that multiple players were suspended for the game for not living up to program responsibilities. Among them were starting defensive tackle Darius Latham, starting inside linebacker Tegray Scales, second-string defensive tackle Ralph Green and backup bandit linebacker Greg Gooch. To make matters worse, the team was also without starting safety Chase Dutra due to an undisclosed injury.
Gone were arguably the Hoosiers’ top defenders at each level of the defense; Dutra in the secondary, Scales at linebacker, and Latham in the trenches. As such, there was quite the shakeup in the two deep. Some guys were thrust into unfamiliar roles and asked to play more than the they had game planned for.
The first half IU gave up an atrocious 32 points and 394 yards to a team that averaged just over 29 points and 380 yards per game last season. Yes, per game.
The third quarter was a stark difference from what we saw during the first thirty minutes, as the defense held Southern Illinois to just 48 yards and no points.
In the final period it was back to business for the Salukis, putting 15 more points on the board and gaining 217 yards, primarily through the air. The defense also had considerable difficulty getting Southern Illinois off the field on third down, as they converted 11 of their 17 third-down attempts.
Who is to blame for an effort like this? The players? The coaches perhaps? Or was it just first game jitters for a team that has their eyes set on rectifying a program’s 20-plus seasons worth of futility?
While their performance was far from inspiring Saturday afternoon, I will tell you who I won’t be blaming. Those guys who did take the field tonight and laid it all on the line despite playing short-handed.
Did they almost come up short?
Yes, they did, and it was infuriating to watch this team struggle against an opponent whom they certainly outclassed from a sheer talent perspective. But they made a big play when they needed it most and I slept a lot better last night knowing they were 1-0 verses 0-1.
I really liked what the offense did Saturday, but if this team wants to make some noise this season, it falls squarely on the defense’s shoulders. I don’t think putting up points will be much of a problem, but one can’t expect Sudfeld, Howard, and friends to bail the squad out each week. In fact, fans shouldn’t expect it, because so far, that has been a recipe for mediocrity.
The Hoosiers have attempted outscoring opponents for as long as I’ve been watching Indiana Football closely and so far it’s resulted in just one winning season.
The defensive players all spoke with a calm demeanor following the game, assuring us that what we saw in that third period is far more indicative of what that group is capable of. And who’s to say it’s not? Like I said, let me see this team at full-strength before I start writing off that side of the ball.
There were some strong individual performances that came out of tonight's game, both Nick Mangieri and TJ Simmons recorded 11 tackles a piece. Linebacker Marcus Oliver had a memorable evening, forcing two huge fumbles that made the difference in the game for the Hoosiers.
But another whole-team performance like tonight and we are going to have trouble, putting it lightly.
So where do the Hoosiers go from here? Well, everyone knew coming in that the Hoosiers secondary was green, I mean real green, green as a gourd. There wasn’t one player who took the field at either safety or corner who had ever started in a game. In fact, Dutra was the only returning player in the secondary to ever start a game, just once last season.
Even more important is that he is one of the verbal leaders of the squad and brings a lot of swagger to a group that was visibly shaken out there at times. So getting a healthy Dutra back in the mix could make a world’s worth of difference.
In addition to the return of the aforementioned suspended players, the team needs to be more more disruptive in the backfield. On Saturday they had just one sack and two tackles-for-loss. They also failed to register one pass break-up on the evening.
I don’t, nor should fans, expect this defense to be the second-coming of the ’85 Bears, but what is fair to expect is that this team continues to build off of its incremental improvements from last fall.
Their next opportunity to do so comes in just six days, an 8 P.M. start at Memorial Stadium against Florida International squad that is coming off of a huge victory over instate rival Central Florida.
There’s plenty of time to panic, but fans want to see what this group can do at full-strength. Without five of their top 22 players on defense, it’s not fair to give them a grade quite yet, so an incomplete will have to do until next time.
For now, relax and enjoy this wonderful Labor Day weekend, plenty of time to fret over football next Saturday.