Tom Allen said his team has had a chip on its shoulder for months.
Since the final whistle sounded at Memorial Stadium in a disappointing 28-21 loss marking the end of another season without a trip to a bowl game,
“We’ve had a long time to let this fester and let our guys really, really work hard to create change in this program, both recruiting and now player development,” Allen said. “Now we get a chance to go out there and prove it on the field.”
Sure, IU returns nine starters on offense and nine on defense. But in the midst of those returners there are questions, and there are expectations. Allen and his team knows it has a lot to prove.
It’s why “prove” is Allen’s one word for this week ahead of Saturday’s season opener at Lucas Oil Stadium against Ball State.
A new quarterback
There’s a new quarterback that will be taking the opening snap of the season for IU.
Michael Penix won the fall camp quarterback competition over Peyton Ramsey and Jack Tuttle. Penix brings both a stronger arm and better running ability than Ramsey who had been the starter for the better part of the last two seasons.
Penix’s skill set is important to the Hoosiers’ offensive scheme, a new one at that.
He will be surrounded by deep groups at the wide receiver and running back positions. IU returns its starting running back and top two receivers from a year ago.
“There’s a lot of guys that have taken a lot of snaps in those critical moments,” offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said. “I don’t think it’s far fetched to say they all need to raise their game and help him along.”
Penix will have experienced pieces around him like Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale who will help him adjust. He has a reliable running back in Stevie Scott behind him. The depth is there too. IU is four deep at both wide receiver and running back.
With the combination of talent and ability as well as a flashy new starting quarterback, there are new expectations. They’ll have to prove why the hype is there.
A new offensive coordinator
The same goes for the man calling the plays.
DeBoer comes into an offense that he described to have “more better players” than places he has been in the past. Saturday’s game will be his first with the Hoosiers, and first with a Power 5 program.
Kalen DeBoer was hired away from Fresno State to replace Mike DeBord. DeBoer is the head coach of the offense. He’s the one who will be tasked with putting one of the strongest collections of offensive talent IU has had in years into a cohesive piece.
His scheme is known for explosive plays, taking advantage of talented wide receiver corps he’s had in the past.
But he hasn’t had a group this deep.
A new defensive coordinator
There’s a new defensive coordinator as well. Kane Wommack isn’t going to change much. It’s going to be the same scheme that both he and Allen learned from former Ole Miss defensive coordinator, and Kane’s father, Dave Wommack.
And just like the offense, the faces are the same (and they’ll have their names on the back of their uniform this year) but there is a lot to prove.
Allen has said that he wants his defense to be a top-25 unit in as many categories as possible. It didn’t live up to that standard last year.
The defensive line struggled last season, and was one of the worst in the nation in sacks as well as tackles for loss. Allen Stallings, Jerome Johnson are the stalwarts and two of the top four sack leaders from a year ago. But they had 5.5 sacks last year, combined.
Juan Harris is listed as a starter after making his return from Independence Community College. Few players on the team further embody Allen’s mantra to prove this week. Harris is getting a second chance after he left IU following a season ending injury in his freshman year.
“We got a lot of young guys, new faces and new opportunities,” Allen said. “That’s where the game is won and lost is up front. So that’s going to be a key thing to focus on, and we’ve just gotta prove on game day that our D-line is what they need to be.”
A new season
IU has the schedule to provide early answers to the pressing questions. The Hoosiers have one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the nation and it begins with a Ball State team that went 4-8 last season and finished ranked No. 119 in S&P+.
On paper, Ball State bears some similarities to IU. It too will return 20 starters including eight on offense and nine on defense. It too will break in a new starting quarterback, or at least a somewhat new one.
Drew Plitt started the final three games of the season for Ball State after starter Riley Neal was lost for the year with an injury. With Neal gone, Plitt has been the clear choice to become the full time starter for head coach Mike Neu’s team.
The Cardinals also bring back their top two receivers from last year as well as running back Caleb Huntley who will return after an injury sidelined him for the final six games of Ball State’s season.
“Prove” may be the word for this week, but it’s a theme that will last all the way through the final whistle against Purdue. The team has had months to think back on a second straight season where the team lost to the Boilermakers to fall short of bowl eligibility.
Allen is ready to see his team prove the new faces on offense can make an immediate impact, prove that a young defense can take the next step now with a year under many key players’ belts and prove it can achieve what it has so narrowly missed two years in a row.