IU’s first running play of last Thursday’s game against No. 2 Ohio State gained no yards.
After four straight passing plays to begin the opening drive, senior quarterback Richard Lagow took the snap in a shotgun formation and handed the ball to junior running back Mike Majette. He took just three steps before being wrapped up behind the line of scrimmage. It was a sign of things to come.
Four quarters after Majette’s nondescript zero-yard run, the Hoosiers ended their night with just 17 total yards on the ground. It looked like a game of reckoning for a unit with no feature back to turn to.
Five different IU players ran the ball, none more than seven times. At halftime, the leading rusher for the Hoosiers was freshman quarterback Peyton Ramsey.
But despite the struggles IU’s running attack faced in its first game, Coach Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord remain confident that it was an Ohio State-specific problem, and not one that will persist throughout the season.
“We knew going in it was going to be hard,” DeBord said Monday. “They supposedly have, like, five first-round draft picks up front. They play seven defensive ends and five inside guys. You add that up, they’re playing about three-deep at four positions.”
Freshman running back Morgan Ellison wound up leading all running backs with 24 rushing yards, but the yards came after the outcome of the game was decided.
Throughout the first half, even though IU led for most of two quarters, the Hoosiers still found themselves getting bailed out by third-down completions from Lagow after the ground game could not move the chains on its own.
Allen emphasized that his team needed to do a better job “winning first downs” – that is, gaining more than three yards on first down as the offense or limiting the opposing offense to less than three yards on defense.
DeBord said the IU staff expected to throw the ball plenty going into the game against Ohio State, but the coaches said other factors limited the running attack for the Hoosiers, such as a banged-up offensive line.
Junior offensive lineman Brandon Knight, who is versatile but currently listed at right tackle, is expected to help out once he returns from an injury that slowed him down during summer practice. Knight was not in uniform Thursday night, but Allen said the former Big Ten All-Freshman honoree practiced Sunday.
“He will help us with that depth,” Allen said of Knight. “We'll see how much he plays this week. But we've got to keep growing that.”
The Hoosiers relied primarily on just six offensive linemen against the Buckeyes, with freshman Harry Crider and sophomore Hunter Littlejohn sharing time at center while the other four starters were on the field consistently.
As IU prepares to face a Virginia team on Saturday that allowed just 240 yards of offense to FCS opponent William & Mary last week, the Hoosier coaching staff is not overreacting to their poor run performance against the Buckeyes.
DeBord, in fact, took solace in knowing that several intended run plays against Ohio State wound up becoming positive pass plays. The Hoosiers called 18 run/pass option plays that ended up being passes, and 11 of those were completed, including a touchdown caught by junior receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr.
DeBord said it goes to show that even when yards are not being gained on the ground, designed run plays can still provide offense. Against Virginia, IU will be looking for significantly more contributions from its running backs, but the ground game won’t be forced.
“We’ve got to be a better running football team than we were in that game, and we will be,” DeBord said. “But yeah, those were some big plays in that game. There were a lot of big plays in that game when we had runs called.”
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