Indiana traveled to Nippert Stadium on Saturday to take on the Cincinnati Bearcats in part two of home-and-home series. Cincinnati defeated Indiana 38-24 in Bloomington, Ind. in 2021, and the Bearcats had their way again on Saturday in a 45-24 victory.
With this loss, Indiana moves to 3-1 on the season before heading to Lincoln, Neb. next week. But before we preview that matchup, let's break down the many issues Indiana showed, as well as a few bright spots on Saturday.
What went wrong
1. Disastrous end to first half
Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant made perhaps his best pass of the afternoon with 32 seconds left in the second quarter. Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen was all over Tyler Scott, but Bryant's pass was perfectly placed and hit Scott in stride for a 32-yard touchdown.
On the first play of Indiana’s next drive, Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak stepped up in the pocket, but he was hit from behind and fumbled the ball. Dominique Perry scooped the ball off the turf and broke free for a 14-yard touchdown return.
Two touchdowns in the final minute of the first half gave Cincinnati a 28-point lead going into halftime. Indiana won its first three games despite trailing at halftime, but that proved too much to overcome against a team like Cincinnati.
2. Big plays through the air
Following Indiana's first score of the game – a 27-yard field goal by Charles Campbell – Tyler Scott torched the Indiana secondary for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of Cincinnati's drive. Scott took one step toward the sideline then broke to the middle of the field, turning Tiawan Mullen around and breaking free. There was no safety help from Indiana, which led to Cincinnati's first touchdown of the game.
Ben Bryant continued to carve up the Indiana defense in the first half, adding touchdown passes of 32 and 34 yards.
"Gave up some double moves. Some of our best guys got beat one on one," Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "Those three big pass plays were the difference for us. Really disappointed in that. Our defense let us down in the first half."
3. Slow start, again
Indiana has scored 115 points through four games, which is good for 28.8 points per game. However, the Hoosiers have only scored nine total points in the first quarter and 36 in the first half.
"It's concerning," Allen said. "There's no doubt because then you start developing a pattern. At first you have your growing pains and you have some new guys, but now in Week 4 that needs to be behind us."
Indiana's fast-paced offense relies on rhythm and keeping the defense on its heels, but the Hoosiers haven't figured out how to do that early in games. In the first half against Cincinnati, Indiana turned the ball over twice and punted four times, contributing to a 28-10 halftime deficit.
"I think we're close," Bazelak said. "We just have to find ways to start drives well. I've said it a bunch, just getting into rhythm, the whole offense just winning first down, getting four, five yards on first down, not putting ourselves in second and long and those turning into throwing situations and those turn into third and longs."
4. Protecting Bazelak
Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak attempted a school-record 66 passes on Saturday, and he was under pressure for a large chunk of them. Cincinnati's defense generated five sacks and 12 quarterback hurries, which often forced Bazelak to rush throws or hurl the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack.
Bazelak finished the game completing 31-of-66 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Indiana's last offensive play of the game was particularly indicative of how the game went, as Bazelak laid on the turf after taking a big hit on an interception.
The Hoosiers are playing without their starting right tackle and center from Week 1, but they to find ways to give Bazelak more time in the pocket.
5. Running the ball
A bright spot for Indiana came when running back Shaun Shivers turned the corner and ran 47 yards untouched to the end zone. But aside from that touchdown, Indiana was unable to run the ball with much purpose on Saturday.
Josh Henderson gained 29 yards on 12 carries, and Shivers ran 16 times for 26 yards before his touchdown. Indiana tight end AJ Barner sealed the edge with a great block on Shivers touchdown, but the running game had nowhere to go for most of the game.
"It's about trying to find creative ways to run the football and be able to take advantage of what we have and the strengths of our team," Allen said. "We have two really good backs that I believe can make plays for us and got to give both of those guys a chance you know, so to me it's about trying to create a — I wouldn't say balance in regards to even numbers, but the effectiveness has to be there."
6. Costly penalties
Indiana was penalized six times for 58 yards against Cincinnati, and a few of them came in costly scenarios.
On 4th and 1 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Indiana put quarterback-turned-receiver Donaven McCulley under center. Facing a 14-point deficit, a score before halftime could have kept Indiana in the game. Instead, Indiana left tackle Luke Haggard was flagged for false start, and Indiana elected to punt.
After being down by as much as 28 points, Indiana chipped away to make it a 14-point game. Cincinnati lined up to punt the ball in the fourth quarter, but a roughing the punter penalty on Indiana's Christian Harris gave the Bearcats a fresh set of downs to run more clock and dispel any chance of an Indiana comeback.
What went right
1. Stopping the run
One of Allen's biggest criticisms of his team through three games was run defense. Based on Saturday's performance, Indiana made the necessary adjustments this week to improve in this area.
Cincinnati averaged 1.3 yards per carry on 30 attempts, including 14 carries for 17 yards from Corey Kiner and and nine carries for 25 yards from Charles McClelland. The Bearcats' lone rushing touchdown came in the final minutes of the game when an Indiana turnover on downs gave Cincinnati the ball at the 2-yard line.
2. Adjusting to Ben Bryant
Ben Bryant's 314 first-half passing yards were the most from a Cincinnati quarterback since Gunner Kiel in the first half against Houston in 2015. Bryant picked apart the Indiana defense, completing 17-of-21 pass attempts for four touchdowns in the first half.
But in the second half, this matchup was quite the opposite. Bryant went 7 for 19 with 40 yards and an interception. Cincinnati punted five consecutive times, followed by a turnover on downs. Indiana's defense held the Bearcats scoreless in the second half until Kiner's touchdown with less than two minutes remaining.
"This team has character. This team has fight and grit," Allen said. "There's no question about that, but you can't get down by four scores in the first half, bottom line."
3. Cam Camper continues to produce
Wide receiver Cam Camper transferred from Trinity Valley Community College to Indiana this offseason, and he's made an immediate impact. On Saturday, he hauled in 10 receptions for 126 yards.
This was his second 100-yard game in four games as a Hoosier, and he's quickly become a favorite target for Bazelak. At 6-foot-2, Camper brings a good combination of size and speed, and he's hard to bring down once he catches the ball. It's been impressive to see the chemistry and timing from Camper and Bazelak in their first year together.
Camper's 33 receptions rank second among Big Ten receivers, and his 418 receiving yards rank third in the conference.
Related stories on Indiana football:
- WHAT TOM ALLEN SAID AFTER LOSS TO CINCINATI: 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 DISCUSSES LOSS AT CINCINNATI: 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