BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana football stands at 3-1 – half way to bowl eligibility – through the first 33 percent of the regular season.
With more total and Big Ten wins than all of 2021, at a glance, the path to Tom Allen's fourth bowl game as Indiana's head coach appears reasonable. In Brett McMurphy's most recent bowl game predictions, Indiana plays Miami (FL) in the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Fla. on Dec. 23.
But before booking plans for Christmas in Florida, it's important to recognize that there's still a long way to go and the road ahead only gets more and more challenging. A trip to a hostile environment in Lincoln, Neb. is next up, followed by No. 4 Michigan, a full Big Ten East slate and the Old Oaken Bucket game against Purdue.
Indiana has shown flashes of being a team worthy of playing a 13th game, but Allen said a lack of consistent execution has been the Hoosiers' Achilles heel. Through four games, Indiana has scored 115 points, but only nine in the first quarter. Indiana was able to overcome slow starts on offense in the first three weeks, but a team of Cincinnati's caliber simply won't let that happen.
"At first you have your growing pains and you have some new guys," Allen said after the loss at Cincinnati. "But now in Week 4, that needs to be behind us."
Part of those struggles stem from an offensive line unit that allowed five sacks and 12 quarterback hurries against Cincinnati. Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak attempted a school-record 66 passes, and he was under pressure throughout the game. Shaun Shivers broke free for a 47-yard touchdown in the second half, but he and Josh Henderson combined to generate just 58 rushing yards on 28 attempts prior to Shivers' score.
At Monday's press conference, Indiana offensive coordinator Walt Bell was asked about concerns surrounding the offensive line.
"What do you need to do, what do they need to do to have the impact you need for this team to be a bowl team this season?"
After a pause, Bell's responded, "That's a fantastic question."
He carried on, "Number one, we've got to make sure we're doing everything we possibly can to have our best five guys out there. Whether that be having to move guys around, do whatever we need to do. Coach Allen alluded to that earlier, and I think that's appropriate. Number two, those guys in certain situations have to be better. We've got to win some one on ones, got to be a little more assignment sound."
"Now we've played three really, really good defenses between Western Kentucky, Cincinnati and Illinois," Bell continued. "All three of them are also very exotic, which poses problems. There's got to be a little bit more consistency there. I've got to not only help protect Connor, but I've got to help protect our football team. It's all of us coming together, being mindful of what our strengths are, what we're good at, what we're not good at and making sure that myself and our offensive staff that we're putting our players in the best possible situation to be successful."
Allen was asked a similar question – "How important is offensive line improvement to this team's chance of getting to a bowl game?"
"Well, I think it's always important to every team that we have," Allen said. "So to me, their development, their performance, how they play, is critical. I would say it's a very important part of that process, us reaching our goals this year, what we have as a team. That has always been the case and continues to be the case. It's about personal responsibility for that group of guys, each position group to perform at a high level. Whoever steps on the field representing that position room, they represent that whole group, everything that that entails. To me it's a heightened sense of urgency, no question, and very important."
Indiana has battled injuries along the offensive line all year, starting in Week 1 when right tackle Matthew Bedford tore his ACL. Bedford started 27 games for Indiana in his first three seasons, and he was replaced by West Texas A&M transfer Parker Hanna. Starting center Zach Carpenter suffered a hand injury in pregame warmups before the Western Kentucky game and backup center Cameron Knight has dealt with a foot injury, which allowed redshirt sophomore Caleb Murphy to make his first career start in Week 3. Allen hinted at the possible return of Carpenter against Nebraska.
As a result, Indiana tried a few different combinations on the offensive line against Cincinnati. Redshirt sophomore Khalil Benson saw time a right guard, rotating with starter Tim Weaver. Redshirt freshman Joshua Sales Jr. replaced Hanna at right tackle on occasion versus Cincinnati. Simply put, Allen said if a guy is not getting the job done, they have made changes to give Indiana the best chance to be successful.
"It's something that we've worked hard on," Allen said. "We're going to have to look at adjusting maybe some of the five we play with, just try to find the best combination that we have to go with. That's obviously on the table, part of our discussions, trying to get the best five guys on the field each and every time we play. The bottom line is they have to perform, be able to execute our run and throw game. That wasn't done consistently on Saturday. High priority for us."
Related stories on Indiana football:
- WHAT WENT WRONG AND RIGHT IN LOSS TO CINCINNATI: Indiana suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday at Cincinnati. The Bearcats used a 28-point second quarter to defeat the Hoosiers 45-24. CLICK HERE
- WHAT TOM ALLEN SAID: Read what Indiana football coach Tom Allen said in the post game press conference following the Hoosiers' 45-24 loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats. Read the full transcript, or just watch the attached video. CLICK HERE
- CONNOR BAZELAK AFTER CINCINNATI LOSS: Saturday, the Hoosiers got their first loss of the season falling to Cincinnati 45-24 on the road. Read the full transcript of what Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak said following the defeat. The press conference video is attached. CLICK HERE
- CINCINNATI DEFEATS INDIANA 45-24: Indiana football suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday at Cincinnati. The Bearcats defeated the Hoosiers 45-24 as quarterback Ben Bryant passed for 354 yards and four touchdowns. Next up for Indiana is a road trip to Lincoln, Neb. CLICK HERE