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COLUMN: What happens when the breakthrough doesn't occur?



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Redshirt senior running back Ricky Brookins runs the ball during the IU spring game Saturday in Mellencamp Pavilion. The crimson team won the game, 37-28. Bobby Goddin Buy Photos

In Saturday’s Cream and Crimson game, multiple times when IU punters punted inside John Mellencamp Pavilion, their punts just stuck in netting in the roof. 

This was an apt metaphor for where IU Coach Tom Allen and the Hoosiers are right now. For years, the trajectory of the IU program had been only upward, making back-to-back bowl games before last season’s five-win campaign.

Instead of building off previous success and breaking through, IU got stuck in the netting and didn’t continue the progress of the years prior. There were no victories over ranked teams, and after the national spotlight on the program for the Ohio State opener went away, it never returned. 

The Hoosiers were trapped by their own mantra of breakthrough. When it didn’t happen, what was supposed to come next? That’s the challenge Allen has to face this season. What he preached so much didn’t come to fruition, and where his program goes from here is critical to Allen’s success — or failure — at IU. 

His message was captivating, but when it came to actual wins and losses, it didn’t seem to make a difference. What is critical for Allen is to learn from what went wrong in his first season as head coach and adapt to a roster of players that are more and more his recruits

This roster is more in his image of what he wants a team to be, and maybe that will make a difference, but with so much up in the air heading into the summer before his second year as coach, it might not be enough.

It’s easy to say IU will have another down season in 2018 because of the immense loss of talent and the multitude of question marks on both sides of the ball. The defense, which has been the foundation of the team the past two years, will lose important playmakers on all three levels. 

On offense, the quarterback position remains in flux with the arrival of graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins from Arizona. Sophomore Peyton Ramsey started in four games last season, but didn’t do enough to earn the permanent starting nod. Freshmen Nick Tronti and Michael Penix Jr. offer promise, but are still learning the system and how to play quarterback in the Big Ten Conference. 

No one is a slam-dunk answer at quarterback, unless one of them takes a major leap forward. The receiving core has solid contributors, but both junior wide receivers Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale are returning from season-ending injuries. The running back and offensive line position groups have talent, but they need to elevate their play. 

This leaves IU’s offense still searching for answers, just like the Hoosiers were for most of last season. It appears the IU offense of the earlier part of the decade is long gone and with Allen not an offensive coach, these problems lay at the hands of offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to fix. 

After a disappointing showing from the offense in 2017, this unit will have to improve rapidly with the defense not being able to be as good as it was. For nearly every game, the defense carried the team, but with so many pieces departing, they will not be able to keep the game within reach next season. It’s up to the offense to get unstuck and regain its form of previous years. 

The netting where the punters’ footballs got trapped in IU’s practice facility hangs from the ceiling. Have the Hoosiers hit their ceiling as a program? Or, can Allen grow from last year’s disappointing season and overcome the attrition of some of the best defensive talent in decades?

Unlike last season, there’s no hype surrounding this year’s team and it’s up to Allen and this team to build back the excitement because right now, it feels like the program is stuck in neutral. 

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