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Margin for error diminishes as Indiana searches for offensive solutions

Indiana was moving the ball on its opening drive, a rare feat for the 2021 Hoosiers. 

Jack Tuttle completed seven of his first nine pass attempts. He converted on third and 13 with a crisp pass to Ty Fryfogle and moved the chains with a bubble screen to Peyton Hendershot on third and 11. 

Indiana looked like the 2020 Hoosiers who could threaten any defense down the field. Tuttle was clicking with his receivers, and the Michigan State defense was on its heels. But after two runs stalled, producing four yards, the Hoosiers faced third and goal.

Peyton Hendershot at Kinnick Stadium (Ross Abdellah/HN).

Tuttle looked for a quick pass to Hendershot in the end zone, but was forced to spin to his left, only to find Noah Harvey and three fellow Spartans in the backfield. Tuttle was driven to the ground, and Indiana settled for a field goal — unable to turn a red zone trip into six points — yet again.

In Indiana’s two wins this season, it has scored a touchdown on the opening drive. But in its four losses, Indiana has started games with a pick six, two three and outs and a field goal. That simplifies Indiana’s big-picture offensive issues, but is telling, nonetheless. Indiana has scored one touchdown in three Big Ten games, its two wins coming against Idaho and Western Kentucky.

On Monday, Indiana head coach Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan each highlighted turnovers and a lack of red zone execution as Indiana’s two biggest offensive failures this season. 

“It’s really not that much more complicated than that,” Sheridan said. “...It’s not for a lack of trying or problem solving, but it just hasn’t come to light.”

It’s no secret to Allen or Sheridan, and it's obvious to anyone who has watched even one game. As simple as it may sound — don't turn the ball over and score touchdowns instead of field goals — its a pair of problems no one can figure out. 

Michael Penix Jr. and Tuttle have combined for 10 interceptions this season after throwing five all of last year, and each has had an interception returned for a touchdown. This has resulted in an offensive grade of 66.9 (out of 100), according to to Pro Football Focus, which makes Indiana one of seven power-five programs ranked outside of the top 100 offenses, joining Florida State, Illinois, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Kansas and Arizona. 

After watching film, Sheridan said Indiana missed a number of opportunities to stretch the Spartan defense down the field. Fryfogle led Indiana with 65 yards on seven receptions on Saturday, but hasn’t been the same threat that won him Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2020.

Ty Fryfogle walks between plays against Western Kentucky (Bailey Wright/HN).

Fryfogle has yet to reach the 100-yard mark this year and already has seven drops, compared to two in all of 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. His drop percentage has risen to 17.5 percent in 2021 after finishing at 5.1 percent last year.

The transfer of Stephen Carr from USC to Indiana was an assumed improvement in the backfield, but one that hasn’t come to fruition. Carr is averaging 3.6 yards per carry on 121 attempts, but as a whole, Indiana’s run game ranks 12th in the Big Ten.

Part of Indiana’s offensive woes in both the run and pass game come back to offensive line play. Pro Football Focus ranks Indiana’s offensive line 113th in the country with an 83.7 pass block efficiency rating. It’s unfair to place blame on one position group, player or coach, but as a whole, Indiana has been searching for solutions since its 34-6 loss at Iowa to begin the season. 

And with a 2-4 record, the margin for error moving forward is miniscule.

Indiana lines up against Western Kentucky (Bailey Wright/HN).

Indiana entered this season with aspirations to challenge the Big Ten powerhouses. Signs reading “What have you done today to win the Big Ten?” line the Memorial Stadium hallways. But with No. 5 Ohio State coming to Bloomington next week and a road trip to No. 6 Michigan on Nov. 6, Indiana needs to win four of its final six games to become bowl eligible. It’s not where Allen or any player expected to be, but it’s the reality they now face.

After a 20-15 loss to Michigan State, Allen reached for a word used commonly by football coaches: grit. Allen defines grit as perseverance and passion toward a long-term goal, but says the negative side of grit is that its only truly learned through hard times. Indiana has absorbed knockout punches from No. 11 Iowa, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 7 Penn State and No. 9 Michigan State, and the locker room feels it.

Following Indiana’s loss to the Spartans on homecoming, Allen walked around the locker room and had one-on-one conversations with Indiana’s leaders. He knows they’re hurting, but loves how they’ve responded. 

For Allen, all Indiana can do is “keep punching.”

“We’re swinging hard,” Allen said. “This team believes in what we’re doing.”

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