It was an all too familiar feeling for Indiana football.
Just a week after senior running back Josh Henderson was stuffed at the goal line on 4th down against the University of Louisville, Christian Turner experienced a similar fate Sept. 23 against the University of Akron.
In the fourth quarter against the Zips, on 2nd and 2 from Akron’s 2-yard line, the senior Wake Forest University transfer took an inside handoff and was immediately met and subsequently brought down a yard short of the end zone.
The Hoosiers were forced to settle for a field goal, marking the second drive of the night to stall at the goal line.
“It’s on all of us,” Turner said in a Monday press conference regarding the red zone struggles. “It’s on me included. I cut back, and my pads were too high. I just feel like I need to be lower and finish my runs better.”
Through four games this season, the Hoosiers are averaging 3.2 yards per carry, ranking dead last in the Big Ten, and just over 100 rushing yards per game — second to last. Following a 2022 campaign that saw Indiana finish near the bottom of the conference in most rushing categories, offensive coordinator Walt Bell hoped to see marked improvement on the ground.
Indiana’s offensive line, which was expected to advance under coach Bob Bostad, has failed to consistently generate a push in the run game thus far. The left side of the line particularly struggled on the ground against Akron, as redshirt senior guard Mike Katic and redshirt freshman tackle Carter Smith registered Pro Football Focus run-blocking grades of 53 and 50, respectively.
With sophomore running back Jaylin Lucas and Turner, the Hoosiers have a pair of viable and versatile options in the backfield. Redshirt freshman quarterback Tayven Jackson has shown flashes in his first two games as the full-time starter, but Bell still wants to maintain focus on the team’s rushing attack.
“From an identity standpoint we’re a run first football team,” Bell said. “There’s gonna be heavy play action as part of that component. That’s who we’re going to be.”
In the absence of senior running back Josh Henderson, who is currently sidelined with a leg injury, Turner has taken over the bulk of carries between the tackles and in short yardage. Turner performed well in his enhanced role against Akron, tallying a touchdown and 67 yards on 13 carries.
While Turner made up for Henderson’s rushing production, replacing his pass-blocking ability has been more challenging. Bell touted Henderson’s pass protection, saying much of the running back’s contributions are details that largely go unnoticed.
Against an Akron defense that presented various looks Bell dubbed “exotic”, Turner and Lucas had difficulties picking up blitzes and warding off pressure. Head coach Tom Allen expressed disappointment in the pass-blocking miscues from the backfield.
“We didn’t do as good of a job protecting our quarterback,” Allen said. “Especially with our backfield blocking, it wasn’t near to the standard it needs to be. We still made some explosive plays in the throw game but not nearly what we should have.”
Part of Indiana’s offensive struggles against Akron — the Hoosiers only scored one offensive touchdown in regulation — stemmed from a lack of touches for Lucas. Bell said the speedy tailback was shadowed by the Zips’ defense and relatively limited as a result.
Lucas was held without a target for the first time this season, and he managed just 43 yards on the ground in 13 carries. Last season, Bell made a concerted effort to strategically give Lucas touches and not overutilize him.
Bell said Lucas operated mostly out of the backfield against Akron due to Henderson’s injury. Moving forward, however, Bell said he plans to use him more as an all-around weapon as Turner and redshirt sophomore Trent Howland grow more comfortable.
To Turner, Lucas simply needs to get consistent touches for the offense to find a spark.
“Jaylin is one of the most explosive players, if not the most explosive player, we have on offense,” Turner said. “He’s a ballplayer. You got to let Jaylin do Jaylin.”
As Jackson continues to ascend and grow within the system, the Hoosiers’ passing game and third down play should improve. Still, if Indiana can’t make strides on the ground, it could be at risk of losing its offensive identity.
With a road matchup against Maryland on the horizon, and a full conference slate looming, the Hoosiers can’t afford more anemic outings. Regarding offensive advancements, Bell’s method is simple.
“We got to block better, we got to run better, we got to catch better, I got to call better plays,” Bell said. “We got to be better.”