On Saturday at Michigan State, Tre Roberson reminded observers of his true level of versatility. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson had always asserted that Roberson would not be put in a role that effectively made him a Wildcat quarterback, and that even though he had been used almost exclusively in short-yardage and goalline situations in recent games, he was capable of more.
Roberson completed 11 of 17 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns in relief of sophomore quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who struggled in his worst performance as a starter. Roberson was sharper and short and intermediate routes after completing just 12 of 27 pass attempts so far this season coming into the game. Wilson suggested that it was not just a physical breakthrough but also a mental one. He said in previous weeks that he thought Roberson was pressing after Sudfeld effectively became the starter and that he finally got past that.
“I don’t think Tre, when Nate played a little bit better when we went to Nate, I think (Tre) went mentally into a funk for a week or so and wasn’t as sharp,” Wilson said. “I think he’s gotten past that now and he’s playing back to like we want him to play and even more. … He’s going to be a high-level quarterback.”
Said offensive coordinator Seth Littrell: “He seems a little bit more relaxed, having more fun. I think he’s kind of a little more rejuvenated. I had a talk with him a few weeks ago about just going back out there and having fun. It’s not about who the starter is. Again, both of those guys know that they’re both going to play and you never know when the time is going to come. Some of it’s dictated on the flow of the game and by different situations. So go out there and compete, have fun each and every day with your teammates. You only get so many opportunities to go out there and compete.”
Roberson’s performance did raise questions about how the competition/rotation with Sudfeld could evolve. Wilson said that Sudfeld would remain “the guy,” even though he’d never declared that formally before Saturday’s game, but that Roberson could see increased action and would not be pigeon-holed into a specific role going forward.
“When Tre’s in there, I don’t want it to be all the sudden, it’s a goalline play and everyone thinks it’s Wildcat,” Wilson said. “Because defensive structures will change because of what they can expect. To me, he can make a lot of throws. I think he’s a quarterback that’s athletic. He’s not an athlete. He’s an athletic quarterback.”
And Wilson said he wasn’t as disappointed in Sudfeld as the numbers might have suggested. Sudfeld completed just 14 of 30 passes for 137 yards.
“Not down on Nate by any means,” Wilson said. “Thought he actually played pretty well. Numbers might not have been as good as the week before, but the week before he missed some things he got away with. This game, some of the coverage, some of the misses were just a little bit off. He made the right reads and just timing a little bit off with what we’re doing. So not down on him. Think he’s awfully good. Count on him playing great this week. Counting on Tre being a big part of what we’re doing. Counting on him playing at a high level. We’ll just see how it goes.”
– Wilson and defensive coordinator Doug Mallory watched the film of Saturday’s game and found better alignment and communication than they had for most of the first four games of the season, but not as good as they saw the previous game against Penn State. The Hoosiers had particular problems dealing with formations that Michigan State had not shown before, including an unbalanced line formation, which caused confusion in Indiana’s pre-snap checks.
“They had multiple formations,” Mallory said. “They gave us a personnel package that they hadn’t shown a whole lot going into the game. They had some success with it and they stayed with it.”
But the bigger issue for the Hoosiers was the most fundamental aspect of defense. Tackling. The biggest reason a previously anemic Michigan State offense managed 42 points and 473 yards total offense was that when the Hoosiers were in position, they failed to make a play.
“We had 18 missed tackles,” Mallory said. “A couple of those explosion plays we had guys in position to make a play and just didn’t execute the No. 1 fundamental thing on defense and that’s tackling. That’s just something that you try to work and you drill throughout the week.”
Mallory said that sometimes tackling fundamentals do slip throughout the season because there is less full tackling during practice. During the season, teams are more likely to go “full go-up,” hitting each other but not tackling to the ground to avoid injury.
“The live-tackling you do during the week is limited particularly when you get to the midway point of the season,” Mallory said. “The thing we always try to do is at least thud-ball carries. We’ll do live-tackling, but it’s more in a condensed space. Your open-field tackling, you’re trying to do every play in practice. You’re getting your body in position to make the play, we’re trying to fit the ball carrier, but not necessarily take him to the ground. Some of that’s a credit to Michigan State. They’ve got pretty good skill players, but it still comes down to, you’ve gotta get them to the ground.”
— Wilson said he expects offensive tackle Ralston Evans and guard Jake Reed to both play in Saturday’s game against Michigan after injuries suffered in the Michigan State game. Right tackle Peyton Eckert remains out with a back injury.
Wilson acknowledged that the offensive line injuries have been a strain, but said he likes his depth more than in previous seasons.
“That’s why you’ve got 85 scholarships,” Wilson said. “That’s why you sign 18, 20, 22 a year. The next guys’ gotta come in and fight for us, and I expect they will.”