BLOOMINGTON – Indiana finished the first chapter of its new season Saturday not that much closer to knowing what it is and where it’s going, as a football team, than when the day began.
If this was not by design, then it at least may well have been expected. Tom Allen’s admission postgame, for example, that his quarterback decision was ultimately to delay a final call until after Week 2 against Indiana State suggests Allen knew the extremes in the challenges awaiting his team in its first two weeks would make grand conclusions difficult to draw so soon.
Indiana started Brendan Sorsby behind center on Saturday, then went to Tayven Jackson, then back to Brendan Sorsby. Neither moved the ball, or the needle, much at all. Postgame, both players talked about the good they saw, the bad they saw, the difficulties of finding a rhythm in rotation and the support they provided one another.
Together, they epitomized a team we knew would bear only scant resemblance to the one that walked off the Memorial Stadium field following last November’s season-ending loss to Purdue. Anyone hoping those conclusions would be forthcoming after just one game, a 23-3 defeat to No. 4 Ohio State, will have been dreaming just as much.
Report card: Grading Indiana’s 23-3 loss to Ohio State
The best — and perhaps the truest — that can be said of IU’s performance Saturday is that its fans should be encouraged, while still not much closer to understanding exactly what to expect from this team across the next three months.
“Disappointed in the loss,” Allen said. “Thought our kids fought hard, played hard. We had a couple guys cramping up with the heat but our defense played tough, showed some things we’ve got to build off of.”
CBS sent its A team to Bloomington for the first 3:30 p.m. kickoff of its new Big Ten partnership, that broadcast crew (Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson) just as curious about what to think of Indiana.
They got a decidedly mixed bag.
There was good. Particularly on defense.
The Hoosiers (0-1, 0-1) covered the spread. Ohio State, which scored 56 points in this matchup last season, managed just 23 Saturday, the Buckeyes’ lowest total against IU since 1993. A defense remade by attrition and the transfer portal delivered a performance that should force the league to stand up and take note.
This isn’t lily gilding, and nobody’s selling moral victories. Seriously! Andre Carter is as advertised! Aaron Casey shared the field with Tommy Eichenberg and played like the best linebacker in the stadium! IU got pressure with a four-man pass rush! Jaylin Lucas might be as much of a handful on punts as he is on kickoffs!
After a winter spent traveling the transfer portal for help revamping a defense well below the standards he set, Allen can feel hugely encouraged by what he saw from that group Saturday.
“We had a big chip on our shoulder, feeling like we had to prove ourselves to the guys already here,” sixth-year end and Western Michigan transfer Carter said. “I feel like we did great, not individually, but all of us together. We did some good things today, and we’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to come back to work on.”
For the best part of three quarters, the No. 4 team in the country wasn’t so much concerned with Indiana as taken aback by it. Ohio State lost the physical battle Saturday in ways its not accustomed to in this series, and most of the teams left on Indiana’s schedule are emphatically not Ohio State.
“You saw how we’re gonna play,” Allen said. “That’s who we are. That’s the system.”
Allen was particularly pleased with his defense’s performance in clutch situations.
Ohio State was just 2-of-12 on third downs, and missed a crucial fourth-down conversion as well. The Buckeyes (1-0, 1-0) went 4-of-4 in red zone possessions, but two of those four drives only ended in field goals.
“We got our backs pinned to the wall a little bit,” Carter said. “We live for downs like that. What more can you ask for than our back against the wall and having to hold it down and get the ball back to the offensive guys?”
Wherein we find the turnabout of Saturday’s performance — an offense that never found its feet in any meaningful way.
To an extent, that was expected. No matter who Indiana started or backed behind center, he would be untested and unpolished. So too would be many of his skill players. Ohio State enjoys tremendous depth and athleticism defensively. Vegas didn’t make the Buckeyes four-touchdown favorites expecting Indiana to score a lot of points.
But one field goal from 153 total yards is anemic offense no matter who’s lined up on the other side of the ball.
“The bottom line,” Allen said, speaking about quarterback play, “is it’s about being able to move the football down the field, get us in the end zone.”
Here, we arrive at Allen outside his own comfort zone, which perhaps tells us something.
IU’s coach has never liked two-quarterback systems, yet he plans to utilize one for both this game and the next one (he said postgame the plan shared with the team from the beginning was that Sorsby would start Ohio State, and Jackson Indiana State, with rotation in each game). It’s unlike Allen to be so misdirecting about position battles, but he absolutely gave the impression he’d named a starter two weeks ago when it turned out he hadn’t. He even admitted after Saturday’s loss IU had been intentionally conservative on offense, in an effort to make life easier for those young quarterbacks but, if we’re allowed to infer and project, perhaps also to withhold some long-term offensive intentions for more relevant games to come.
Indiana didn’t throw the Ohio State game. The Hoosiers were trying to win. But they were doing so while still struggling with their own identity, a devilish circle to square.
We saw more commitment not just to the run but to triple option-based concepts Saturday than we’ve ever seen. We also saw offensive coordinator Walt Bell put more of the passing game on Sorsby’s plate than Jackson’s, but that was probably motivated by time and score.
Did one separate himself from the other? Probably not. In what is annually the most thumb-on-the-scale matchup on IU’s schedule, it would be hard to know if they had.
What does Indiana want to be offensively?
If it’s an option-heavy rushing team, Jackson might be the Hoosiers’ man. If the commitment will be to pass offense at the scope we saw a year ago, Sorsby might make more sense, though Saturday hardly endorsed either player in any event.
Until there’s a clear answer to that question, this team’s way forward remains unsettled.
Barring catastrophe, we won’t learn much more next week. Indiana State lost its opener 27-0 to Eastern Illinois, at home, turning the ball over six times. Any scholarship quarterback on IU’s roster should be capable of captaining his way through what’s coming Friday night.
But increasingly, the Week 3 meeting with Louisville in Indianapolis feels like high noon. Not just because it is a potential swing game against an old foe set in the beating heart of Indiana’s fan base. But honestly, whether he’d admit it or not, because Allen sort of designed it to be so.
Indiana did a lot of good Saturday afternoon. More, frankly, than was probably expected. And yet it’s still difficult to stand in the aftermath — good, bad, ugly — of Saturday’s loss and say with any conviction that we know more about the Hoosiers’ long-term viability than we did before kickoff.
It’s a long season. Wins and losses are the most inarguable statistics. And the jury remains emphatically out on this team’s future.
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana football loss to Ohio State offers silver linings for Hoosiers