It sounds like Mark Dantonio will never forget the complexities of Michigan State’s loss to Indiana in Bloomington two years ago. Speaking at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, D’Antonio was asked about his preparations for the Hoosiers — and warned of IU’s fondness for trick plays. He said the Spartans “have to go back and look at all of them to be prepared.”
There’s only one problem with that: the Hoosiers haven’t really used trick plays anymore under Tom Allen, unless jet sweeps are considered trickery. D’Antonio was likely referring to the Kevin Wilson era — the likes of Big Bacon with Zander Diamont and Tyler Natee, fake punts, and the like. After all, Indiana doesn’t claim the Old Brass Spittoon in 2016 without Mitchell Paige’s touchdown pass to quarterback Richard Lagow. It’s not surprising that D’Antonio implicitly referenced it on Tuesday.
It is, however, surprising that D’Antonio spoke of the 2016 loss rather than the 2017 win. Boy, was that game ugly. Michigan State won 17-9 in a game that Peyton Ramsey never looked comfortable. As inspiring as Ramsey was against Virginia and Michigan, he appeared hesitant and at times, overwhelmed against Penn State and Michigan State.
Ramsey finished 22-of-34 for 158 yards but the Hoosiers could not move the ball. And when they did move the ball, they couldn’t score a touchdown. Indiana is three weeks into its 2018 campaign, and last season’s loss in East Lansing is the ideal case study for IU’s offensive transformation. A lot has changed since Allen took over, even if D’Antonio is still preparing for flea flickers and onside kicks. Let’s see what the film shows from last season’s game:
I’ve said this multiple times already this season, but last season’s offense was very confusing. I think part of it was the challenge of building it around Richard Lagow, only to have Ramsey enter and take the reigns. That’s a hard adjustment, considering how different those skillsets were.
Anyway, Mike DeBord had Ramsey run the ball significantly more last year against the Spartans. Indiana never solidified its running game in 2017 despite flashes from Morgan Ellison, and that forced Ramsey to use his legs. It did not work in East Lansing. Ramsey averaged 2.2 yards on 15 carries. Indiana’s go-to play in the redzone was a quarterback draw with Ramsey. The Hoosiers ran it five times and gained a few yards total, if anything.
After Tony Fields forced a fumble in the first quarter, Indiana took over at the Michigan State 15. The Hoosiers went three-and-out and settled for a short Griffin Oakes field goal. This sequence of play-calling was not effective in the slightest:
It’s a rather minor point, but DeBord has not called those quarterback draws for Ramsey this season, at all. If Ramsey runs, it’s via option after making the read — or a scramble. Ramsey has deceptive speed, but he’s not fooling a defense like Michigan State’s front seven. With emerged running backs in Stevie Scott and possibly Ronnie Walker, Indiana has won with feeding its actual tailbacks, rather than forcing Ramsey to create. In the redzone this season, Indiana has been improved at finishing touchdowns rather than field goals. The Hoosiers have 14 redzone opportunities and have scored nine touchdowns and two field goals, for 11/14. The tests get tougher this week, but the playcalling and execution have been more improved. Targeting Donavan Hale near the pylon is a valuable option IU has, similarly to Cobbs last season. It also helps to have Scott move piles, by himself.
“I think there’s a sense of knowing where I’m gonna go with the ball,” Ramsey said. “Sometimes even before it happens. There are times where, whatever the defense is giving me, there’s holes in the defense and certain things we’re doing where we know we’re gonna get easy completions.”
Ramsey, the Runner
Let’s look at another redzone sequence against Michigan State last season. I don’t mean to be harsh, it’s just that Indiana likely wins that 2017 game if it converts in either of these opportunities. Also, it’s a decent look at how Ramsey has improved as a runner. And lastly, I personally think Indiana wins this game if it converts touchdowns in the redzone and has success on the ground.
On this fourth quarter drive, Devonte Williams drew a pass interference penalty to give Indiana a 1st-and-10 from the MSU 11-yard line. A touchdown would have given the Hoosiers a 13-3 lead in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Hoosiers once again settle for a short field goal. They run the same play three times and gain seven yards — feeding the ball to Morgan Ellison. I’m assuming that Ramsey could have kept any of these options. On the second play of this 3-and-out, Ramsey may have been able to score a touchdown if he faked the handoff to Ellison. Unlike the 2017 quarterback draw, this is a play still heavily frequented by DeBord in 2018 — as it should be. Three games in, Ramsey is making the correct reads so far and has excelled in choosing when to run, and when to feed Scott. IU’s quarterback is running less, but with more effectiveness — averaging 4.6 yards per rush compared to 2.5 as a freshman. This was not one of those effective times, given a stingy Michigan State defense:
Watching that Michigan State-Indiana game from a year ago, Saturday night is a completely different matchup. Indiana has changed its identity, while Michigan State essentially remains the same and returns many starters. IU’s offense is faster, older, and deeper. Simmie Cobbs was a valuable talent, but he didn’t usually stretch the field. Subtract Cobbs, and add the likes of Reese Taylor, a healthy Nick Westbrook, J-Shun Harris, and Donavan Hale, an emerged running game, and the list goes on. The capabilities that DeBord has on offense are drastic compared to this meeting last season.
“You’ve seen how much we have improved last year,” Ramsey said of the offense. “I think our offensive line play has been the main driving force for us to move the ball. we have so many playmakers on the outside and so many guys to get the ball to. We have so many different pieces that have allowed us to move the ball and score points.”
There’s been a lot of speed talk in Bloomington this season, given IU’s revamped strength and conditioning program that was put in place this offseason. It’s for real. The playcalling has completely changed — and while Ramsey might always be an accuracy-first quarterback in an accuracy-defined offense, we’re seeing new formations and offenses like DeBord hinted at in the offseason. The addition of Michael Penix Jr. has allowed Indiana to stretch the field, and we haven’t necessarily seen the results of combining Penix’s arm with Westbrook’s ability as a vertical receiver. Something to keep an eye on.
A lot of this has to do with the offensive line. In last season’s battle for the Old Brass Spittoon, Indiana relied heavily upon quick screens to Cobbs, or dinks and dunks over the middle to Timian. Ramsey didn’t usually have much time, and when he did, his receivers didn’t create, or have, any separation. There’s no film needed for this segment. Indiana was without Westbrook and Hale, Philyor hadn’t totally broken out just yet, and Reese Taylor was torching up scoreboards for Ben Davis. If this film study serves as a preview for Saturday night’s showdown, it should be clear that Indiana’s offense is operating with levels of speed and versatility that rivals any IU offense in recent memory.