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Indiana’s loss to Cincinnati dampens preseason optimism after red zone failures

Tom Allen deftly strode into the press room below Memorial Stadium with a noticeable sense of urgency, his eyes focused straight ahead, his hat pulled tightly on his head. He slid behind the podium to address the media after Indiana’s 38-24 loss to No. 8 Cincinnati Saturday afternoon. 

Normally, Allen gives opening thoughts about the game. On Saturday, though, he declined.

“Questions,” he said, skipping the usual routine.

Allen is usually teeming with energy, a nonstop motor of emotion who chest bumps his players on the sideline and gives long, thought-out answers during interactions with media. After a game like Saturday, it’s not expected that Allen will exude that same boundless energy. Still, it was apparent by the way Allen walked in, by the way he answered the first question with just nine words, that there was frustration, even irritation.

He knew his team could’ve done more. He knew his team left three red zone opportunities without any points. He knew his quarterback tossed three interceptions for the second time in three games. He knew his team blew a 14 point lead.

In winnable game against a top-10 opponent, Indiana beat themselves.

“You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and you’ve got to look yourself in the eye,” Allen said. “You’ve got to stand up and you’ve got to take responsibility. I’ve got to own a 1-2 start.”

Few would’ve expected the Hoosiers to have that record at this point in the season. There were unprecedented expectations entering this year, and cautious optimism that the Hoosiers could compete for a Big Ten title. Those hopes were seemingly justifiable, with the Hoosiers returning 17 starters from the last season’s historic team that knocked off Penn State, Michigan and ascended into the national conversation.

But now it seems those expectations were brought upon Indiana too soon. The Hoosiers were blown out by Iowa in the first game of the season. Then, the Hoosiers dominated Idaho, but it was an imperfect performance. Saturday was a chance for Indiana to clear up the uncertainty and prove that it was a team capable of competing for a Big Ten title.

Now? The Hoosiers are 0-2 against non-FCS competition. Given that sample size, it’s difficult to believe that the Hoosiers can go into Happy Valley in two weeks and knock off Penn State. Or go to the Big House against Michigan later this season and pull out a win. Or beat Ohio State at home.

Tim Baldwin Jr. is tackled by Cincinatti defenders Saturday afternoon (Ross Abdellah/HN).

“It’s not where any of us wanted to be or expected to be at this point but here we are,” Allen said. “How are you going to respond? We have a lot of good players in that room, a lot of kids who have given a lot to this program and that I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for.” 

You could blame the targeting call on Micah McFadden. You could blame the personal foul call on Thomas Allen. Or the 99-yard kick return by Cincinnati. All of those are reasonable. But it remains that Indiana’s offense was inconsistent and it’s difficult to see Indiana having success if that doesn’t change.

On the offensive side of the ball, there were three plays that arguably defined the game, all of which were in the red zone and all of which ended with zero points.

The first came at the beginning of the second quarter with Indiana leading by seven points. Allen elected to keep his offensive unit on the field for fourth and one at the Cincinnati 10-yard line. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. tried to sneak it for a first down, but didn’t get enough of a push and was stopped short, giving the ball to the Bearcats.

“I’d do that (go for it) 10 times out of 10,” Allen said after the game. “You’ve got to score touchdowns.”

A few minutes later, after the Indiana defense had held strong once again, the Hoosiers made their way to the Cincinnati eight-yard line. But on third down, Penix Jr. lobbed a ball to the near side of the endzone and was picked off by Cincinnati’s Bryan Cook. For the second time in less than a quarter, the Hoosiers failed to convert in the red zone.

The last, though, was arguably the most costly. Down by six points with eight and a half minutes left in the game, Indiana had a first down on the Cincinnati two-yard line. Running back Tim Baldwin Jr. had the ball knocked out after charging forward. The original call was that Baldwin Jr. was down, but after a review, the call was reversed.

A strength of last season’s team was its ability to make opportunistic plays. That was not the case Saturday. Indiana was 3-of-6 on red zone chances. On the other hand, Cincinnati was 5-of-5.

“You can’t be in the red zone three times and get no points,” Allen said.

It was announced after the game that Penix Jr. was taken in for X-rays, and no further details were given beyond that. Allen said that he’s continuing to evaluate every position, and declined to give a direct answer on if Penix Jr. will continue to be the starter.

Through the first three games, Indiana hasn’t proven its success last season is sustainable. And the road ahead will only get more difficult.

“We’ve got to come together,” senior linebacker Cam Jones said. “Coach Allen preaches L.E.O. We’ve got to love each other.”

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