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'Keep grinding': Hoosiers solidify contention in Big Ten through domination in the trenches

Darren Hiller, run game coordinator and offensive line coach for Indiana, ended four of his answers the same way in Wednesday’s press conference.

Caleb Jones during Indiana's win over Michigan. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

“We have got to keep grinding,” Hiller said.

Hiller praised the highs and recognized the lows of this Indiana offensive line through three games. He said he has seen improvement each week the Hoosiers take the field, but knows there are still plenty of ways to get better. And to keep grinding. 

“We are not even close to where we need to be,” Hiller said. “Every single day is a challenge to be better and be better as a unit.”

Even when head coach Tom Allen approached Hiller last Sunday to say "great job" after the Nov. 7 victory over Michigan, Hiller said there are still a lot of things this offensive line has to get done. It is this mentality used by Hiller, as well as defensive line coach Kevin Peoples, that has aided in the steady improvement seen on both lines. 

In Indiana’s 38-21 win over then-No. 23 Michigan, the Hoosiers dominated the trenches. Indiana rushed for 118 yards while holding Michigan to just 13 rushing yards on 18 carries.

“There’s a lot of things to be excited about,” Kane Wommack, defensive coordinator, said. “When you can eliminate somebody’s run game that is a big deal, and when you can get off the field on third downs and [force] seven three-and-outs those things are great.”

Conversely, the duo of Stevie Scott and Sampson James kept the Hoosiers balanced, even in a game where Michael Penix Jr. attempted 50 passes.

Scott led the way with 24 carries, 97 yards and two touchdowns. James, the former four-star recruit, has done well in a relief role for Scott this year, rushing eight times for 25 yards versus the Wolverines. 

Going into the Michigan game, the Indiana offensive line was tasked with blocking two of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten. Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson both project to go in the early rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, but each were held without a sack and combined for just one tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry versus the Hoosiers.

Hutchinson was injured on the first drive of the game, but it took a special effort from left tackle Caleb Jones to keep Paye out of the backfield. Hiller said he thought Jones played his best game as a Hoosier from an effort and finishing standpoint. 

“He’s a really big man,” Hiller said. “When he does play hard and play through the whistle, good things are going to happen for us.

Hiller said each week the team identifies scenarios where it can use the snap count to its advantage, and against Michigan, this was an ideal situation. Michigan is an aggressive defense, so Hiller said the Penix and the offensive line were able to mix up snap counts to draw Michigan offsides five times in the first 21 minutes of the game. 

Hiller was proud of the discipline the Hoosiers showed versus Michigan, but recognizes Michigan State as another tough test for the offensive line. The Spartan defensive line will keep Indiana busy, with three players above 335 pounds. For Hiller, the mentality remains the same.

“It is just a matter of us staying at the task at hand and grinding and getting better on a daily basis play after play after play with a 1-0 mentality,” Hiller said.

But it wasn’t just the offensive line for Indiana that controlled the line of scrimmage. Going into the season, there were questions surrounding the Indiana defensive line because of what it had lost to graduation after the 2019 season, but the Hoosiers are starting to answer the call. 

The Wolverines gave carries to four different running backs, none of whom were able to get anything going against the Hoosier front seven. Michigan quarterback Joe Milton has proven to be a threat with his feet this year, too, but Indiana kept moving him backwards as he rushed five times for negative nine yards.

For defensive tackle Demarcus Elliot, a performance like this has been a long time coming. Elliot started his college football career at Garden City Community College in Kansas, where he first dreamt of games like this.

“It means the world to me,” Elliot said. “Especially coming out of JUCO, having the dream of playing versus guys like that and just being able to live it, do it and succeed very highly at it is just an amazing feeling honestly.”

Elliot recognized the talk that maybe the defensive line was Indiana’s weak link heading into the season, but he is working to dispel that narrative. 

“We're showing people that we don't have a weak link on defense," Elliot said. "We’re all solid and we all can work."

The domination in the trenches versus Michigan, or simply the ability to compete with the top lines in the conference on a consistent basis, is a huge step forward for Indiana football. In the Big Ten, running the football and stopping the run are often priority No. 1 and No. 2, which has helped Indiana solidify itself as a serious contender in the Big Ten.

In the recent history of Indiana football, finishing games has been an issue. One of the most notable games in this respect from last season was the Hoosiers 40-31 loss at Michigan State. With a chance to avenge that loss and move to 4-0 on the season, Wommack knows that finishing on the defensive side like Indiana did versus Michigan is crucial.

“Good defenses execute in the first, second, third quarter, all those things,” Wommack said. “But great defenses finish, and I thought that we did that in this game and it was a big deal for us to execute at that level at the end.”

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