It’s officially the football off-season, some teams are celebrating great seasons while others are stuck licking their wounds and mending their broken pride. Regardless of how the 2021 season ended, all 14 Big Ten teams must put it in their rear-view mirror and look forward to the 2022 season. There have been coaching changes, outgoing and incoming transfers, players leaving for the draft, new schemes, and new expectations. The off-season allows fans to dream of a successful 2022 campaign, and it’s up to each individual program to make that a reality.
While that process has started for the teams, as fans, we are beginning to ask the questions that programs need to answer to be successful. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Land-Grant Holy Land; Five Questions for each B1G team to answer this offseason.
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Indiana Hoosiers went 6-2 (6-1 in the Big Ten) and were a conference vote away from representing the Big Ten East in the conference championship game. Heading into 2021 there was a lot of hype around the program, Tom Allen and his “love each other” mantra had taken over college football. It would be an understatement to say that the Hoosiers did not meet expectations. IU ended the 2021 season 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten) and have a lot of questions that need to be answered this offseason, starting with these five.
What went wrong on defense? How do they fix it?
Throughout his entire career, and especially at Indiana, Allen’s calling card has been his defense. He wasn’t the flashy offensive mind that his predecessor (Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson), he was hired to fix a poor defense that led to a lot of shootouts and — for the most part — he’s been successful in turning around the IU defense.
However, the bottom fell out in 2021; the Hoosiers ranked 71st in total defense, 76th in passing defense, and 60th in rushing defense. They gave up 33 points per game and allowed opponents to score in the red zone 90% of the time, good for 109th and 116th respectively. To make it worse, they weren’t even good at taking the ball away — which was their calling card in 2020 — ending the season with nine takeaways and a -13 turnover margin which ranked 128th in the country.
No matter what stat you look at, Indiana was just an outright horrible defense in 2021. That is a major shift and a stain on a coach billed as a defensive guru. In all honesty, Allen should be embarrassed by his team’s defensive effort and if he has any chance at a successful 2022, the defense will have to be fixed first.
So, the question is, what went wrong? And how do they fix it? Whatever the solution is, it can’t be a long-term process, there needs to be an immediate upgrade in 2022 or the Hoosiers might be looking for a new coach.
Is Connor Bazelak the answer at QB?
Most years, you could expect Indiana to put up a fight defensively, but struggle offensively and that is in large part due to their quarterback. Michael Penix jr. led the Hoosiers for three seasons, but will be remembered most as a player who never reached his superstar status due to his propensity for for getting, and staying, injured.
When healthy, Penix could provide a spark with his athleticism and keep IU in a game, but in three seasons, he’s played in just 17 of a possible 32 games. It is very unfortunate, as you never want to see a promising career go that way, but that also highlights one of IU’s biggest failures. They spent three seasons relying on a quarterback who could never play the whole season, and were unable to develop a quality backup or land a spot-starter in the transfer portal.
After another disappointing and injury-plagued season, Penix entered the transfer portal allowing Indiana to finally move on to a new starting quarterback in 2022. That QB will apparently be Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak.
Bazelak will be a redshirt junior in 2022 and has the potential to lead the Hoosiers for two or three seasons, bringing consistency to their quarterback room. Of course, there were better quarterbacks on the market, Bazelak is a career 66% completion percentage, but will need to cut down on his interceptions if he wants to be a success in Bloomington.
Indiana is a defense-first team, they may not need a superstar quarterback to be successful, but will a healthy Bazelak be a big enough upgrade over Penix to get Indiana out of the Big Ten dregs and into a bowl game? I’m not sure, but that’s a question they’ll need to answer this offseason.
Has Tom Allen’s schtick run its course?
During Indiana’s 2020 season, Allen became a college football favorite because of his “love each other” mantra. Indiana was winning and their head coach was openly expressing his love for his players. In a time when men don’t always show their emotion, it was refreshing to see Allen talking about his players and even shedding tears for them in public. All that is well and good when you’re winning, but when you lose, it becomes something totally different.
The biggest thing that a college coach needs to be successful in all aspects of his job is to be genuine and Allen may be genuine, but all schticks get annoying when you’re losing. When your defense can’t stop a nosebleed, or when your quarterback is injured for a third straight season, you don’t care how much your coach loves you. When you go 2-10 and don’t win a single game in conference, it can be frustrating when your coach is super positive and keeps telling you that he’s proud of you and that things will eventually turn around.
The Indiana administration must determine if Allen still has the locker room. That’s usually a bigger consideration in the NFL, because of the regular churn of players at the college level, but if the players on the team don’t respect Allen, they won’t listen to him, and if they won’t listen to him, they won’t play hard for him. This upcoming season could have been an aberration, a departure from the norm, but they need to be sure of what they have and the 2022 season will help answer that question.
Is changing offensive and defensive coordinators enough?
After the 2020 season, Indiana’s defensive coordinator Kane Wommack left the program to become the head coach at the University of Southern Alabama. To replace him, they hired Charlton Warren, which lasted all of one full season as he was fired this offseason, as was offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan.
After a dismal 2021 campaign, they weren’t going to continue without making changes so it’s expected that the coordinators would be the first to go. The question becomes who you hire for 2022, and if those hires aren’t immediately successful, what becomes of Tom Allen?
Indiana will go into 2022 with former Minnesota defensive line coach Chad Whit as defensive coordinator and former UMass offensive coordinator Walt Ball in the same position. As far as I’m concerned, I’d imagine that Allen enters the season on the hot seat based on these hires alone. I wouldn’t hire an OC who ran a program that went 2-23 in recent seasons, but Allen has now tied his future to these new coaches. Did he make the right hires, and will they lead to a massive turnover in 2022? We’ll have to wait and find out.
What are realistic expectations for the program?
There are a lot of important questions that Indiana needs to answer, but the most important is determining realistic expectations and goals for this season. The baseline should be a bowl game, but is a 6-6 season enough to renew faith in Tom Allen? Do they expect to be contenders in the Big Ten East annually, similarly to Northwestern in the West? It’s clear that 2021 was unacceptable, but the only way to judge 2022 will be when realistic expectations have been determined.