The biggest question leading into Indiana football’s season opener against No. 3 Ohio State was who the Hoosiers would anoint as their starting quarterback --- and the same question remains following Saturday’s 23-3 loss at Memorial Stadium.
After a competition that lasted all offseason, Indiana gave Brendan Sorsby the first opportunity to prove he was the solution, but the redshirt freshman’s initial two drives netted just seven total yards and resulted in three-and-outs.
In need of energy, the Hoosiers turned to fellow redshirt freshman Tayven Jackson, who held the reins for six series, two of which ended in Buckeyes territory. Kicker Chris Freeman’s 42-yard field goal on Jackson’s second drive put Indiana on the board and created early optimism around the University of Tennessee transfer’s potential, but he struggled in the four possessions that followed.
Jackson concluded his Indiana debut with just one completion for 24 yards on five attempts. He said it was challenging switching back and forth with Sorsby, which the latter echoed postgame.
“It’s tougher to get into a rhythm because you never know when you're going to go in, you never know when you're going to get pulled out,” Sorsby said. “So, hopefully one of us makes the jump and we're able to figure out who this guy is going to be and go from there, but it is a little tough.”
Sorsby took over with the Hoosiers trailing 20-3 in the final three minutes of the third quarter and led a 14-play, 51-yard drive in which he showed promise. He completed five-for-10 passes for 48 yards, but the drive stalled just past midfield. The Denton, Texas, native finished eight-of-16 for 58 yards and said he liked the way both he and the offense finished, largely because he was more aggressive and willing to push it downfield.
“I really felt like I was seeing it pretty well the whole time,” Sorsby said. “I’ve just got to continue to press it down the field and trust my guys. They're on scholarship too, just like me. We’ve got to go out there and make plays.”
There were spurts of encouragement from both passers, be it Jackson’s scoring drive or Sorsby’s glimpses of pushing the ball downfield, but neither did enough to cement themselves as the clear option moving forward. The Hoosiers finished Saturday’s contest a combined nine-of-21 for 83 yards with no touchdowns or turnovers through the air.
The back-and-forth nature of who was under center not only produced inconsistent play from the signal callers, but also negatively affected the rest of the offense, according to senior receiver Cam Camper.
“It definitely was hard to get into a rhythm,” Camper said.
Allen named Jackson the starter for Sept. 8’s home game against Indiana State University — which aligns with the Hoosiers’ plan to give both quarterbacks the opportunity to prove they belong --- but continues the trend of disrupting rhythm, as Camper alluded to.
The reason for the switching, Allen said postgame, is because two live games of evaluation is necessary after a back-and-forth offseason, especially with the different level of opponents between the Buckeyes and Sycamores. Indiana believes it’s the fairest way to handle the competition and produces the most representative performance, even if it doesn’t net the prettiest results early.
That said, Indiana’s quarterback trouble extends beyond the numbers – just look at offensive coordinator Walt Bell’s decision to pass the ball only seven times in the first eight drives while the game remained close —and an underlying sense of a lack of confidence emerges. Allen acknowledged the game plan was more conservative than he would’ve liked.
When Sorsby entered, the Hoosiers attempted 14 passes over the game’s final 20 plays, most of which were sparked by the desperation of the 17-point deficit. There was more balance in the final quarter than the earlier stages of the game, and even though Sorsby wasn’t overly efficient with the additional opportunities, he still believes the offense was at its best when the play-calling was more pass-heavy.
“I liked that a little bit more,” Sorsby said. “It felt good – it felt like we started to move the ball a little bit late.”
The point remains that Indiana needs more production from the quarterback spot. There’s a strong chance to improve both visually and statistically against Indiana State, the final audition before the Hoosiers reach a conclusion – and perhaps help take the offense to another level with newfound rhythm.
“We’ve just got to keep growing and getting better at it,” Allen said. “They both showed some signs of that, and also showed that they’re young. We know what’s ahead of us, what we’ve got to do, and I want to see a lot of growth between week one and week two.”