When Indiana needed a drive to put Saturday’s game away, it went to the ground to get it.
The six-play, 60-yard drive that ended on a 17-yard play-action touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld to wide receiver Shane Wynn had consistent of all running plays up until that point. All but one of those five plays went for at least 5 yards, including a 21-yard run by sophomore D’Angelo Roberts.
It was as cohesive a run attack as the Hoosiers have had all season.
“The guys really responded well,” offensive coordinator Seth Littrell said. “We talked to them about getting back, we needed a drive, we needed a score. That’s what I’m more proud about that anything is that we stepped up. I don’t know if we could’ve done that sometimes in the past, where you step up and you’re able to come out there and make plays like that. I’ll tell you, that last drive, you saw a lot of guys flying off the ball with a lot of velocity. That’s what it takes, and that mindset has to be for four quarters. We didn’t do that for four quarters.”
In the running game at least, the Hoosiers haven’t done that for four quarters many times this season. They’ve had their moments on the ground when they’ve been able to move it well, but others when they’ve struggled.
Heading into Saturday’s home game against Iowa, the Hoosiers rank eighth in the league in rushing with 156.8 yards per game, but the average is significantly lower if you take out the Hoosiers’ 331-yard effort against Massachusetts on Sept. Indiana hasn’t rushed for more than 173 yards in any game other than that one.
‘When we’re at our best and our line is getting a push, we’re just clicking,” junior tailback Stephen Houston said. “When we have little mishaps, that sets us back. But just trusting it. Being patient, because sometimes, me and D’Angelo (Roberts) get impatient, we might snap or something. But just basically, having trust that our line is going to do their job and they trust us to do ours.”
By snapping, Houston just means going slightly against the plan.
“Snapping is in the form of not believing any more,” Roberts said. “You kind of get back to the old you and you see a little hole and you hit it. With our line and our scheme and our zone protections, basically, we just need to trust our blocks. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing.”
The Hoosiers are dealing with a talented but very young offensive line. Center Will Matte is the only senior, and he’s dealing with two true freshmen and two true sophomores when the starters are healthy. The wrist injury to left guard Bernard Taylor has mixed things up, but that just means the slightly older redshirt sophomore Collin Rahrig is starting. The line has been mostly solid despite the youth and the Hoosiers actually rank second in the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed, having given up just 11, but there are times when the run game communication needs to be better.
“I think they’ve done a pretty good job,” Matte said. “It can be a challenge, because it’s basically young guys. It might be a communication thing between me and the rest of the line, or sometimes a couple of the guys have their own calls by themselves. As we have more experience and we play more, we’re going to be able to mesh better.”
The running game is also much different because of the loss of sophomore quarterback Tre Roberson, the speedy Lawrence Central graduate who rushed for 114 yards on just five carries in the Massachusetts game, but then broke his leg early in the second quarter. Backups Cameron Coffman and Nate Sudfeld have been strong in his absence and are the reason the Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in pass offense with 286.6 yards per game. However, neither is anywhere near as fast as Roberson, and that effectively takes the zone read option —the Indiana run game’s bread and butter last year – and takes it out of the package. That in turn forces Indiana to account for the backside defensive end, which is often left unblocked in the zone read option blocking scheme.
“You’ve gotta protect the edges and you’ve gotta do some different things with some play action,” Littrell said. “They’re not going to respect your quarterback as much so now they’re going to do some different things on the backside because they don’t have to be as honest at the defensive end position. We just gotta keep changing up a lot. We’ve gotta keep getting different ways to make those guys think.”
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