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Analysis: Indiana's offense needs to get on track, and quickly, ahead of matchup with Cincinnati

Stephen Carr, who’s in his first season at Indiana after transferring from USC, had one of the best performances of his career Saturday night. He rushed for a total of 118 yards. He scored a touchdown. Plus, his backfield teammates Tim Baldwin Jr., Chris Childers and Davion Ervin-Poindexter added a combined 61 yards on the ground.

Besides that group? Indiana’s offense was largely unproductive. Michael Penix Jr. threw for just 68 yards, a figure that backup quarterback Jack Tuttle surpassed in one play, a 76-yard touchdown toss. Only one receiver recorded more than 33 yards.

Michael Penix, Jr. looks to the sideline during Indiana's loss to Iowa on Sept. 4, 2021. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

The Hoosiers beat the Vandals 56-14 mostly because of their production on defense and special teams, which included a blocked punt scooped up into the endzone and later an electric punt return touchdown by DJ Matthews. A dominant special teams performance like the one on Saturday, however, would be difficult to replicate on a consistent basis.

It was the second consecutive week that Indiana’s offense struggled, after failing to score a touchdown against Iowa in the season-opener. In that week one matchup, the Hoosiers generated just 233 total yards, including a mere 3.3 yards per play. 

Against Big Ten competition, a poor offense will only suffice for so long, as evident in the blowout loss to Iowa. With Indiana’s veteran defensive group, the offense really only needs to be average. That, however, is something that it hasn’t really proven yet and there is plausible reason to be concerned about the offensive unit as the Hoosiers prepare to host No. 8 Cincinnati on Saturday. 

Many of the inconsistencies can be traced to the play of Penix Jr. Against Iowa, in his first game back from ACL surgery, he never got into a rhythm and looked out of sync. He threw three interceptions, no touchdowns and had a completion percentage of just 45 percent.

Against Idaho on Saturday, there were moments, albeit brief, where Penix Jr. looked more composed. He tossed a perfect fade to Javon Swinton for a touchdown in the first quarter. Later in the half, he executed a back-shoulder throw to Ty Fryfogle for a 9-yard touchdown.

"It's just a matter of him being able to continue to move around and play football," IU head coach Tom Allen said Monday. "Just extend the pocket if we have to, slide in the pocket, move around and get the ball downfield."

But overall, Penix Jr. didn’t look close to a dominant quarterback on Saturday. There were times, again, where he didn’t look comfortable in the pocket and wasn’t on the same page with his receivers. Most of his completions were underneath routes, which are helpful to gain confidence, but he was never able to connect on the long ball and open the field up. It made Indiana’s offense one-dimensional.

Caleb Jones during Indiana's win over Michigan on Nov. 7, 2020. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Another part of the struggles is due to Indiana’s offensive line, which has been a consistent problem since last season. Yes, they paved the way for Carr and others Saturday. But they also gave up two sacks during one drive, something that shouldn’t happen against a team like Idaho. Surely that doesn’t help Penix Jr.’s comfort.

"I think it's more timing than technical," Allen said of Penix Jr. "...I feel like that the more he plays, the better he's going to get and the more of those natural things, those instinctive things that he does and has built inside of him."

Some of this is can be attributed to the many shakeups on the offensive line, where Allen and the coaching staff are still figuring out their best five. Before the game against Iowa, Luke Haggard and Zach Carpenter, both expected starters, were out, causing some shifts.

Indiana’s starters against Iowa (from left to right): Caleb Jones, Mike Katic, Dylan Powell, Tim Weaver, Matthew Bedford.

Against Idaho, Haggard was back, causing some more changes (from left to right): Luke Haggard, Mike Katic, Dylan Powell, Matthew Bedford, Caleb Jones.

Jones moved to a different side of the line, shifting Bedford from tackle to guard. With the varying lineups, part of Indiana’s shortcoming could be due to the fact that the offensive linemen simply haven’t played much as a cohesive unit, making communication a potential issue. Getting more reps should help that. However, it’s not an ideal situation given we’re already in week three. 

Experience, however, shouldn’t be a problem. Jones and Bedford are multiple-year starters. Powell, who started six games last year, has been around college football since 2016. Katic was IU’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year last season. IU offensive line coach Darren Hiller, though, said last week that he’s looking for more guys to step up as leaders, especially with their consistency on a play-to-play basis.

"The o-line needs to keep coming together," Allen said. "They have to play really, really well because it (the game) definitely starts and stops with them."

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