As DJ Irons triumphantly flexed his muscles in the back of the end zone, Indiana football defenders could only watch in helpless frustration.
The University of Akron redshirt senior quarterback evaded a handful of Hoosiers and scrambled for a 10-yard score to put the Zips ahead 24-17 on Sept. 23. Though Indiana ultimately won 29-27, Irons’ success on the ground was a troubling development for a Hoosier defense that displayed promise from the outset of the season.
Irons paced both teams in rushing yards with 141 and rushing touchdowns with two. The Lawrenceville, Georgia native frequently extended drives with his legs, drawing the ire of Indiana fans, coaches and players alike.
“Obviously Irons has the speed to get down the field and hurt you in a big way,” head coach Tom Allen said in a press conference Monday. “I just think that we’ve got to do a better job schematically.”
When Indiana takes on Maryland at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in College Park, the Hoosiers will already have a taxing matchup against the 4-0 Terrapins. In Maryland redshirt senior quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, Indiana’s defense will face yet another dual-threat signal caller who can make plays off-script.
“He’s hard to get on the ground”
Maryland’s high-octane offense has steamrolled through four weeks of play. At the helm of an attack that has yet to score under 30 points in a game is Tagovailoa, who leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 1,112 and touchdowns with eight.
While his speed in the open field may not be as potent as Irons, Tagovailoa compensates with his elusiveness in the pocket. When plays start to break down, the 23-year-old often utilizes his light feet to dip around defenders and scramble into space.
“We know we’ve got a big challenge on our hands this week from a quarterback that can create off schedule,” co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri said of Tagovailoa. “He can run the ball, he can throw the ball, and then he can do both those things when it all breaks down.”
Guerrieri said the defense’s struggles against Irons stemmed from taking different pressure related risks. Granted, they paid off in the form of three interceptions, but they simultaneously allowed Irons to continually gash the Hoosiers on the ground.
Tagovailoa may not take off past the line of scrimmage as much as Irons, but he’s much more threatening with his arm. Indiana redshirt senior linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar said the defense will be focused on closing off areas of the field and staying sound in gaps.
Indiana’s defensive line — which initially improved with the help of redshirt senior Andre Carter — looked formidable against Ohio State and Indiana State University through the first two weeks of the season. Since, the group has struggled to generate consistent pressure and stop the run.
Containing Tagovailoa is paramount. Indiana’s defense knows it can’t afford the mistakes it made against Akron on Sept. 23.
“(Tagovailoa) hasn’t been sacked very many times because he’s hard to get on the ground,” Allen said. “It hasn’t been one of our strengths the last two weeks, and it’s going to have to be on Saturday.”
From drops to miscues in pass protection, Allen and various Indiana players lamented a lack of focus against Akron. After the 29-27 win, redshirt freshman quarterback Tayven Jackson said the team failed to hone in on details and preparation in the week leading up to the game.
The Hoosiers’ offense managed just one touchdown in regulation and was outgained 474-282 in total yardage. With senior running back Josh Henderson sidelined with a leg injury, senior Christian Turner and sophomore Jaylin Lucas were thrust into heavier pass blocking roles than normal.
For the first time this season, Lucas was held without a target. As Indiana’s offense looks to find more opportunities for explosive plays against Maryland, Lucas undoubtedly figures to play a significant role.
“It’s always good to give Jaylin the ball in space, or anytime pretty much,” Jackson said. “I didn’t do a good job of giving him the ball.”
Thursday morning, Allen said the team practiced with an enhanced level of intensity throughout the week. The newfound focus is especially pertinent following a game Allen felt the team may have overlooked against Akron.
Now, against an undefeated conference foe on Saturday, there’s nothing but respect for head coach Mike Locksley and the Terrapins.
“They’re playing really complementary football,” Allen said. “And they play hard, physical and athletic on both sides of the ball and on special teams as well.”