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Monday Notebook: Why isn’t Indiana stretching the field?

Peyton Ramsey takes a snap on Saturday. (Mark Timko/HN)

Hello again, and welcome to another Monday notebook. We sat down with Nile Sykes, Jonathan Crawford, J-Shun Harris, and Peyton Ramsey — as well as hearing from Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. 

Let’s start with something that I’ve wondered after all four games this season: Why aren’t the Hoosiers stretching the field? It’s a loaded question. Let’s start with Michigan State, given the Spartans constantly pressured Ramsey to the point where Indiana’s quarterback didn’t have much time in the pocket. That’s certainly part of it, a large part of it, but it’s not the whole story.

I’ll take a step back and provide an overview with four games in the sample size. According to Pro Football Focus this season, Ramsey has thrown 122 passes.  69 percent of Ramsey’s passes have been thrown under ten yards. Nine of them have been attempted over 20 yards. Ramsey is 0-for-5 when throwing to the outside parts of the field over 20 yards. He is 4-for-4 over the middle at that distance, however, including his 65-yard touchdown to Whop Philyor against Michigan State. That was a 22-yard throw, from release to reception

Saturday night’s loss was the worst game of the year for Indiana’s offensive line. It’s an elite Michigan State front seven, a rush defense that ranks first in the country. The Hoosiers abandoned the run at halftime, and the Spartans got to Ramsey throughout the entire night. He didn’t have much time in the pocket at all — and it’s measured by how often he completed passes to his outside receivers: six catches and ten targets (Hale, Westbrook, Fryfogle). Reminder: Ramsey threw the ball 46 times, his career-high. With the exception of that Philyor play and Ramsey’s overthrow to Reese Taylor on IU’s third offensive play, the deep ball was not explored Saturday night.

How much did that have to deal with Indiana not being able to run against a vaunted Michigan State defense?

“Yeah, trying to make up for that a little bit, yes,” DeBord said Monday. “They played a lot of man coverage and we were trying to run some crossers, some guys running underneath guys right around the five-yard area. And you’re going to catch those. Trying to get rubs that way, get guys open that way. But, yes, to answer your question, it was trying to keep the chains moving a bit, to get in favorable third-downs.”

“Yeah, it was because of the pocket,” DeBord after being asked again. “When you’re in the course of the game and having trouble that way a little bit, the thing I think about is getting rid of the ball quick, and we tried to do that as best we could.”

There are questions with Ramsey’s arm strength, although it does appear that it’s improved from his freshman to sophomore seasons. But Ramsey averages 6.3 yards per attempt in college. A fellow quarterback under DeBord’s system, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, averaged 8.3 yards per attempt as a senior. Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins averages 10.4 this season, as another example. And Richard Lagow averaged 7.2 yards per attempt in his two seasons at Indiana.

Indiana will likely need to stretch the field at times in certain games. Does it have to happen against Rutgers? No, probably not. But if Indiana wants to stay competitive in Columbus and Ann Arbor, the Hoosiers will have to run effectively. IU’s run game has opened up when it has proven to an honest defense that it can throw downfield. It works both ways, I suppose. The Hoosiers have their best batch of offensive skill players in years. It appears they just need to execute them.

“Coming to the sideline, I could’ve done a better job of relaying the message to our coaches that we could have probably taken some shots outside,” Ramsey said Monday. “We were just taking what the defense was giving us, and it just turned out that they were shorter routes.”

What happened on Michigan State’s sealing touchdown?

On the 75-yard touchdown by Michigan State’s Jalen Nailor that sealed Indiana’s 35-21 loss on Saturday, IU safety Jonathan Crawford was visibly upset.

As he should be, although Indiana’s senior safety is one of the more stoic players on the team. The Hoosiers’ offense had miraculously cut the deficit to 28-21 with 3:28 remaining, and it was the defense’s turn to give Indiana a chance to tie the game. The Hoosiers had all three timeouts remaining.

Nailor went untouched to the house on a play where Indiana players say they were misaligned. Crawford cited a missed assignment. The Hoosiers were down to their third-string husky as well, after Marcelino Ball’s targeting ejection and an injury to freshman Cam Jones. 

“I’ve just been in that situation so many times,” Crawford said of the play. “It’s really frustrating for me. Honestly, it was one of those things that is out of my control for my position. I wanted it bad. Things were looking up, Coach Allen said the game was in our hands.”

Crawford has indeed dealt with those kinds of game-ending plays over the course of his career. He has started every game for the Hoosiers since arriving to Bloomington as a true freshman in 2015. There’s a lot of games that ended like Saturday’s. Think Ohio State/Iowa/Michigan in 2015, Penn State/Michigan in 2016, and Michigan/Michigan State in 2017.

And now this one. But like Saturday night’s letdown, Indiana will have to turn the page and focus on its next opponent. This time, it’s Rutgers, the embarrassment of the Big Ten through four weeks.

Injury Update

It is Week 5 now, and that usually means injuries are starting to pile up. While Indiana has avoided many serious ones, the Hoosiers have accumulated a few. There are two that bring a decent amount of concern: Defensive tackle Jacob Robinson unexpectedly missed Saturday’s game vs. Michigan State, as Allen said his senior captain suffered an injury during practice last week. He is week-to-week, and has been removed from Indiana’s two-deep depth chart. It’s a depth chart, so value that with a grain of salt. Jerome Johnson and Brandon Wilson have taken his place there.

Marcelino Ball will be suspended for the first half of Rutgers, as addressed earlier. Allen spoke to his team Monday morning about the targeting rule and the best ways to avoid the penalty and ejection. Anyway, freshman husky Cam Jones was injured against the Spartans and did not finish the game. He will be a game-time decision for Rutgers and Allen will know more about his status later in the week. Bryant Fitzgerald and true freshman Jamar Johnson are two options Indiana has at husky behind Ball and Jones.

It sounds like Whop Philyor avoided a serious injury on Saturday night. Philyor hobbled off a few times, although he finished the game and at times, was the entirety of IU’s offensive production. He said postgame that his ankle was “very sore,” and he may have sprained it. We’ll see if he’s out there in Piscataway. As far as fellow slot receiver Luke Timian, Allen says that he is week-to-week. It appears like it’s somewhat of a leg injury for Timian, who did not dress Saturday. Allen said Monday that he is improving.

Along with those five names, another question mark is the status of right guard Mackenzie Nworah. Indiana could use him back for offensive line depth. He has missed the last two games.

Quick Look at Rutgers

Where to start. The Scarlet Knights were blown out, 42-13, last week against a 4-0 Buffalo team. But still. Rutgers lost 55-14 at Kansas the week prior, and 52-3 to Ohio State. Though they do in fact have one win against an actual FBS opponent in Texas State.

In all seriousness, Indiana should find some success running the football against Rutgers on Saturday in Piscataway, or New Brunswick, or wherever the school is. The Scarlet Knights are the nation’s 115th-best rush defense, as they gave up 400 yards to Kansas on the ground. Four hundred. To Kansas.

Rutgers head coach Chris Ash held his weekly presser this morning, where he did not answer questions asking who Rutgers’ starting quarterback will be against Indiana. True freshman Artur Sitkowski had been the Scarlet Knights’ starter, but he has thrown one touchdown to seven interceptions. He did not finish Saturday’s game against Buffalo.

As much as Rutgers has completely fallen apart as a program in 2018, this is a crucial game for the Hoosiers. If there is a path to six, seven, or eight wins — it includes Rutgers. And Indiana hasn’t exactly thrived against the Scarlet Knights in recent years.

“I know they haven’t played the way that they want to,” Allen said. “But the bottom line is that we will have to be prepared for a tough battle. We went there two years ago, my first year here, and were not sharp, and that is a vivid memory in my mind of how we played in that game as a team.”

I am a senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, studying in IU’s School of Global and International Studies. Prior to joining The Hoosier Network, I spent two seasons covering IU Athletics for the Indianapolis Star alongside Zach Osterman after becoming the Sports Editor of the Indiana Daily Student as a freshman. While I found myself studying Italian in Florence this past summer, I interned with The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017 — my hometown paper. In case you want to talk cheesesteaks or the Philadelphia 76ers, you can find me on Twitter, @ByTeddyBailey.

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