Indiana football’s undefeated season came to an abrupt end Saturday against the University of Cincinnati. The Bearcats exploited the Hoosiers’ defensive weaknesses and dominated the Hoosiers Saturday afternoon, 45-24.
After last season’s loss at home against Cincinnati sent Indiana on a downward trajectory in which it lost nine of its last ten games and finished the season 2-10, the Hoosiers were eager for revenge.
In the Hoosiers first road game of the season, they traveled to Nippert Stadium, where they were welcomed by a hard-hitting Bearcat defense and an electric environment powered by the animated student section.
To start the game, Indiana strung together a couple of positive yardage passing plays, but on its second offensive drive, redshirt junior quarterback Connor Bazelak's pass sailed into the hands of Cincinnati sophomore safety Bryon Threats.
Despite Threats returning the interception to Indiana’s 6-yard line, the Hoosiers’ defense stayed true to their adage of bending but not breaking and stuffed the Bearcats' offense to force a field goal.
After Indiana tied it up 3-3 with a field goal of its own, Cincinnati absorbed the punch and came back swinging even harder on its ensuing drive. Redshirt senior Ben Bryant found wide-open junior receiver Tyler Scott for a 75-yard touchdown reception to give Cincinnati the 10-3 lead to conclude the first quarter.
As both teams benefited from the short fields, they traded a pair of touchdowns. Indiana’s first and only touchdown of the half came from a connection between Bazelak and senior running back Josh Henderson to cap a short 65-second drive — cutting the lead to just 7 points early in the second quarter.
However, what followed was an offensive onslaught from the Bearcats as they scored 21 consecutive points within the last five minutes of the first half. Cincinnati’s Scott was on the receiving end of two of the three Bearcat touchdowns — notching a touchdown hat trick in less than 30 minutes of gameplay.
The third Bearcat touchdown in the five minutes before halftime came as the result of a Bazelak fumble, recovered by redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dominque Perry and returned for a touchdown. The scoop and score gave the Bearcats a 38-10 lead going into the locker room — the largest halftime deficit for the Hoosiers so far this season.
Indiana’s defense didn’t just break in the first half, it was fractured.
Bryant finished the half 17-21 with 314 yards and four touchdowns. Along with his three first-half receiving touchdowns, Scott had 158 receiving yards on just seven catches and his partner in crime, senior Tre Tucker, had 92 yards on five catches, securing the other touchdown pass from Bryant.
“Some of our best guys are getting beat one on one,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said postgame. “Those three big pass plays were really the difference for us.”
The Hoosiers’ message coming out of halftime was clear.
“If we don’t believe we can win this game then we should stay in the locker room,” Bazelak said.
Entering the second half and in search of a monumental comeback, Indiana is given a pulse with a senior cornerback Tiawan Mullen interception. The Hoosiers used the momentum from the turnover to produce a scoring drive when Bazelak found senior running back Shaun Shivers in the endzone.
Although Indiana kept Cincinnati scoreless in the third quarter, a late third-quarter drive dwindled for Indiana after an unsuccessful fourth down conversion in the red zone.
Defensively, Indiana sought to right its wrongs in the second half and its defense looked vastly improved compared to the first half, holding Cincinnati's offense to zero first downs on five offensive drives.
Despite the rejuvenation of Indiana's defense in the second half, the Hoosiers' offense stumbled over opportunities toward the latter half of the game and a late touchdown — the lone Bearcat score of the second half — put the game out of reach.
Bazelak set an Indiana football program record with 66 pass attempts in a single game, notching the record on a pass that was intercepted. The Hoosiers ran 104 offensive plays throughout Saturday’s game, averaging just 3.3 yards per play.
“It's a long season,” Bazelak said after the game. “Every single game is going to be a dog fight. It's going to be tough.”
What is Allen’s solution to the team’s inconsistencies between the halves? Tell the team it’s halftime prior to kickoff, Allen joked.
“It’s concerning," Allen said. "You start developing a pattern. We have to make changes on how we are practicing.”
Indiana will look to bounce back next week against Nebraska at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska.