Indiana offensive coordinator Mike DeBord admitted Monday that his running game has been inconsistent of late. After IU running backs scampered for 106 yards against FIU, 204 yards against Virginia, and 157 yards against Ball State, the Hoosiers’ run game had emerged as a strength for this team.
The past two weeks, though, have been a complete reversal. Indiana only managed 18 yards from its tailbacks vs. Michigan State, and 93 yards against a Rutgers defense that allowed 400 on the ground to Kansas earlier in the season.
IU’s struggles against Michigan State were expected — the Spartans are the nation’s top rushing defense, and it’s not particularly close. But 18 yards signaled a clear abandonment of the run. And only managing 93 in Piscataway is concerning for an Indiana offense that starts on the ground.
“It’s been inconsistent,” DeBord said. “We’ve had it going in games, and in other games we’ve struggled. The run game goes hand-in-hand with the offensive line, the tight end, and the running back. They’ve all got to be together. We’ve had some mistakes in the offensive line and we’ve also had mistakes with our backs not reading properly. That makes the line look bad. We just have to be in a better sync. That’s where the inconsistency comes from.”
Under Debord for the past two seasons, Indiana is an astounding 9-2 in games with 100 rushing yards or more. The Hoosiers are 0-6 when they run for under 100 yards. Peyton Ramsey is 2-4 in games when IU’s quarterback has thrown over 30 times. Ramsey, meanwhile, has never lost a start when he has attempted less than 30 passes.
There are numerous discrepancies with these statistics. Most of them are generated because of how football is played. When you’re winning, you run the ball more often. When you’re losing, you throw the ball. The sample size is small, but there is a clear pattern regardless: DeBord’s offense, and Indiana’s personnel, require a competent running game. Most teams do, obviously, but Ramsey is clearly at his best when IU is able to run the football.
So, the question is, can the Hoosiers re-ignite their run game in Columbus? It will be a tough task. Ohio State is only the 63rd-best rush defense in FBS, but those numbers are skewed based on the 175 rushing yards of Penn State’s Trace McSorley last week. Indiana and Ohio State only have one common opponent, Rutgers. The Buckeyes allowed Rutgers tailback Raheem Blackshear 31 yards on nine carries — compared to Blackshear’s eight carry, 64 yard performance against the Hoosiers last week.
In the second half against Rutgers last week, Indiana ran the ball 22 times for 56 yards en route to being shutout by the Scarlet Knights following halftime. According to both DeBord and head coach Tom Allen, it has been a combination of spotty offensive line play, and youth in the backfield. Indiana’s leading ball carriers of Stevie Scott and Ronnie Walker are both true freshmen. Allen was asked about the offensive line on Monday, and felt that it must improve as Indiana heads to Columbus.
“We had one three and out in the second half, and that was the first one, and we ran the ball three times there and didn’t get a first down,” Allen said. “That set a tone. That was disappointing. I was frustrated by that. They’ve got to be more consistent. To me they did some good things in the first half, but it’s got to continue. We play for 60 minutes. That’s a group that I feel like has got to continue to keep working.”
These struggles were expected in the offseason, especially before Florida International when starting running back Morgan Ellison was suspended indefinitely. Scott emerged, and he emerged rather quickly. But Indiana has run into Big Ten defenses now, and opponents that benefit from having ample film on IU’s true freshmen tailbacks. A 12-game season will almost always have its ups and downs. Saturday in Columbus could certainly be another struggle for Indiana’s run game. Even though the Buckeyes lack star defensive end Nick Bosa, the Hoosiers will be faced with an elite defensive line –featuring the likes of 6-foot-3, 286-pound defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and 6-foot-4, 308-pound Davon Hamilton. It’s a very seasoned line for Ohio State, with explosive defensive end Chase Young as the only underclassmen starter.
For Indiana and its run game problems, it’s all centered on progression. The Hoosiers will benefit Saturday, and far past it, if they can establish the run early.
“I didn’t think our running backs did a great job, and our staff would agree of reading our blocks,” Allen said. “That happened multiple times in this game more than it’s happened the entire season, so working on that, getting those things cleaned up. Those guys are still young back there, that we’re relying on to run the football.”