The Indiana football team is seeking to bounce back from a disappointing 4-8 record last season. Its season starts Saturday with a tough test against an Ohio State team Hoosier’s head coach Tom Allen called “the very, very best.”
Allen, whose seventh season leading the Hoosiers will begin when Saturday’s game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. inside Memorial Stadium, is optimistic the matchup will be beneficial for his squad, stating he hopes it “‘accelerates” growth and helps answer any remaining questions.
But what exactly will Allen and the staff be looking for? Here are three things to watch in the Hoosiers’ season opener:
Jackson vs. Sorsby: Winner of Indiana’s quarterback competition to be revealed
Allen has proven during his time in Bloomington he is not fond of releasing any depth chart information he doesn’t have to — including the starting quarterback.
Hoosier fans taking their seats in the stands Saturday afternoon may not know which quarterback they’ll be rooting for until the first snap. The game will mark the conclusion of a months-long race between Tayven Jackson and Brendan Sorsby, both former four-star recruits who are now redshirt freshmen.
There’s the legacy pick in Jackson, a Tennessee transfer and the younger brother of former Indiana basketball star Trayce-Jackson Davis, and the longer selection in Sorsby, who was the first quarterback signed by offensive coordinator Walt Bell.
Regardless of who leads the Hoosiers’ offense onto the field, Allen believes the biggest focus point this week will be on preparation, which he said breeds confidence.
“You prepare and you leave no stone unturned,” Allen said. “I just want them to be confident and play with decisive decision-making. You want to make sure you set them up to have the best success possible - but they've still got to get in the fire and play against a really, really talented defense that's big and fast and physical and has really, really good coaches.
Some may consider facing the ever-talented Ohio State defense as a tough circumstance to make a starting debut, but Allen thinks facing a team of Ohio State’s caliber is the best way for a young quarterback to get acclimated.
So, Allen feels he’ll learn quite a bit about what his new signal caller is made of — but the biggest focus for many is first seeing who lines up under center for the Hoosiers’ first play.
Offensive, defensive lines poised for step forward
The idea that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage is an old one – and it’s often quite true.
Consider last year, when the Hoosiers were throttled 56-14 by Ohio State while allowing 340 rushing yards and twice as many yards per carry as the Indiana offense could muster. This year, there’s a level of confidence in Bloomington that the gap between lines will be much smaller.
It’s integral Indiana’s offensive line keeps its young passer upright and maintains a clean pocket. The Hoosiers struggled in pass protection last season, allowing the second-most sacks in the Big Ten with 38, and fired offensive line coach Darren Hiller near the season’s halfway point.
Hiller’s replacement, Bob Bostad, has spearheaded a group that both Allen and offensive coordinator Walt Bell feel has improved. Of course, the Hoosiers won’t really know until kickoff how much progress has been made, but Bell said Bostad’s group, which is one of the more experienced in college football, spent more time working inside the building this summer than any other position.
Part of the early optimism surrounding the Hoosiers’ offensive line is internal confidence in their defensive counterparts. Led by Western Michigan transfer defensive end Andre Carter, Indiana’s defensive line is the first position Allen pointed to when asked about where he feels most comfortable. Allen cited the group’s depth before dubbing it a “strength” of the defense.
“I feel like our defensive line has some different players than we've had in terms of just the mass and the talent level,” Allen said.
The Hoosiers posted just 20 sacks last season, third-worst in the Big Ten. The newly fortified group will have to make Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord uncomfortable early and often — or else, the limitless weapons on the Buckeyes’ offense will simply prove too good to overcome.
Allen’s ‘biggest question’ will be answered
While Allen largely espoused confidence in his team ahead of Saturday’s matchup, he appeared less certain about the team’s secondary.
“I think the biggest question mark is just a lot of new faces in the secondary, and they'll be tested at a very, very high level right from the get go,” Allen said.
The Hoosiers lost a lot of experienced faces on the defense’s back end, as corners Tiawan Mullen and Jaylin Williams, and safeties Devon Matthews and Bryant Fitzgerald are all gone. There’s stability in team captain and starting defensive back Noah Pierre, while safety Josh Sanguinetti’s five years in Bloomington give him plenty of experience to look back on.
Indiana is expected to rely on a trio of transfers - Jamier Johnson from University of Texas, Kobee Minor from Texas Tech and Nicolas Toomer from Stanford - to hold down the fort. The Hoosiers’ defensive backs have a big challenge ahead of them this weekend, with Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr., largely viewed as the best wideout in college football.
Allen knows the Buckeyes are going to make plays, but his assignment for the secondary is trying to prevent explosives. In order to do so, he and Guerrieri have stressed playing well within the system and disguising plays but, most importantly, entering with the mindset that they belong.
“They'll be tested without question,” Allen said. “They'll be put in a situation where they're going to have to play really, really well, and they're going to have to have a really bad memory.”
The irony of the situation is that Indiana wants its defenders to have a bad memory … all the while creating one they’ll never forget. Sure, the Hoosiers are 30-point underdogs, but they’re not paying any attention to it – they expect to be in this game. They’ve worked all offseason knowing the challenge they’d have at the start, and with kickoff closing in, belief is growing.
Is Indiana capable of pulling off one of the largest upsets in college football history? Oddsmakers say no – but the team, most importantly, says yes.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Bell said. “We’re excited to play them. We won’t get off the bus unless we plan on winning, so we’ll be there.”