IU began its 2018 football season with a relatively comfortable 38-28 victory Saturday night at Florida International.
Several storylines emerged over the course of the three-hour, 20-minute contest at Riccardo Silva Stadium, from the offensive and defensive play of freshman Reese Taylor to the success both sophomore Peyton Ramsey and freshman Michael Penix Jr. had at quarterback.
With the Hoosiers, 1-0, now in the midst of preparing to face the Virginia Cavaliers, also 1-0, on Saturday night in Bloomington, IU Coach Tom Allen and Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord spoke to the media Monday afternoon at Memorial Stadium to discuss IU’s opening game.
1. IU loses another running back
The IU running back situation took a hit prior to the FIU game when last year’s starter, sophomore Morgan Ellison, was suspended indefinitely from the team. On Monday, Allen announced Ellison’s replacement, sophomore Cole Gest, tore his ACL during the first half of the FIU game and will be out for the season.
“I know how hard he’s worked and played extremely well when he was in there,” Allen said. “Obviously, has a setback now he has to handle and we’ll be with him side by side through this whole process, and he’ll come back stronger than ever and he’ll be with us again in the future.”
Losing starters on offense during the first game of the season isn’t new for the Hoosiers. The same fate happened to former wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. in 2016 and junior wide receiver Nick Westbrook last season. But, IU now finds itself without its top two choices at running back, as Allen also said there is no additional information about Ellison’s suspension.
As such, freshman Stevie Scott will be the new go-to option in the backfield.
He finished Saturday’s win with 20 rushing attempts, 12 more than any other IU player and 15 more than any other IU running back. His 70 yards gained and 3.5 yards-per-rush average weren’t gaudy numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but he’ll be a serviceable option to compliment whichever mobile quarterback IU has behind center.
“I just think he’ll do nothing but continue to get better,” DeBord said of Scott.
Further, if IU continues to use Taylor and sophomore wide receiver Whop Philyor in specialized running plays, as well as allow Ramsey and Penix the freedom to scramble, IU’s running game should remain decent through nonconference play.
“I really feel like that we have a group in that room of young men that will be called upon now,” Allen said. “Bottom line is that seasons always give you things you don’t expect and, obviously, this is one of those for us.”
2. Disappointment with offensive and defensive lines
The Hoosiers surrendered 170 rushing yards to the Golden Panthers in Miami, and despite generating 213 rushing yards of their own, Allen was dissatisfied with the way IU’s offensive and defensive lines played.
Allen cited IU’s failure to convert a 3rd and 1 play as an example of situations in which the IU offensive line could improve.
“I did not feel like they finished the way I wanted them to finish blocks, finish the drives, just it was not what I want to see,” Allen said. “It was a solid performance, but it wasn’t what I expected out of that group, who I’ve said from the beginning is the strength of our team, and I want them to own that.”
Experience and depth will benefit IU’s offensive line, but the likes of seniors Wes Martin and Brandon Knight need to help the line assert itself in short-yardage situations if the group is to become IU’s offensive backbone.
Defensively, Allen concentrated his disappointment on the defensive line and linebackers.
“I think it was a combination of those two groups that to me didn’t play to the standard that we want here to be able to secure the gaps and play with discipline,” Allen said.
The Hoosiers managed woefully little pressure in the FIU backfield and posted just one sack, by sophomore Jerome Johnson. IU’s struggles to create consistent penetration into opposing backfields isn’t new, and especially with several new players rotating into those positions, it was to be expected that IU would have shortcomings in this area.
IU’s five tackles for loss, including two by junior Gavin Everett, were encouraging, but Coach Mark Hagen quickly needs to get this unit up to speed before the Hoosiers get eaten alive by opposing offenses in Big Ten play.
3. Reese Taylor’s time to shine
No IU player captured the excitement and imagination of Hoosier fans more than Taylor on Saturday night. The 2017 Indiana Mr. Football played on both offense and defense, usually making big-time plays when he was on the field.
His 32-yard rush to set up IU’s first touchdown of the game was IU’s second-longest play from scrimmage, and his two solo tackles showed his successful adjustment from high school quarterback to college defensive back, although he is IU’s third option at quarterback.
He also caught a pair of passes in the FIU win.
Now, with Gest injured for the season, Taylor’s time in the IU backfield will only increase.
“I would expect to see his role on offense to expand,” Allen said. “We’ll see what he can handle each and every week. But I do know that he, the few times he touched the ball, he’s got a chance to make things happen and I think he’s a special player.”
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