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Indiana's struggling defense needs quick remedy against ground-and-pound Wolverines

It only took seven minutes for Indiana to turn a three-point lead into an 11-point deficit in the third quarter against Maryland on Oct. 30. 

After a long-awaited 66-yard touchdown burst from Stephen Carr, Indiana’s defense gave up touchdown drives of 75 and 67 yards on the following two possessions. Indiana had no answer for Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who picked apart the Hoosier defense for a career-high 419 passing yards.

After shuffling through four quarterbacks and waiting seven weeks for Indiana’s offense to figure things out, surprisingly, it’s been the defense that has let Indiana down lately. The unit that Indiana once leaned on to win games has taken a sharp, downhill turn in recent weeks.

Indiana's defense takes the field against Cincinnati (Ross Abdellah/HN).

It was once easy to pin a tough schedule as the overwhelming reason for Indiana’s struggles, but impactful adjustments have been hard to come by through eight games. Allowing 54 points to Ohio State and 38 at Maryland has moved Indiana’s defense to dead last in the Big Ten in points allowed at 31.6 per game.

The career day from Tagovailoa slid the Hoosiers further down the Big Ten defensive passing ranks, coming in at No. 13 this week. Indiana’s sixth-ranked run defense in the Big Ten has kept the Hoosiers afloat, but is not enough to overcome big-picture struggles.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Indiana's overall defense ranks 87th in the nation. PFF slots the Hoosiers at 92nd in the country in terms of  defensive pass coverage.

On a more positive note, Indiana's run defense ranks 46th, according to PFF, which is reflected by a tackling grade that ranks 23rd in the country. But the Hoosiers are hardly getting any pressure on the quarterback in 2021, coming in at 118th in the nation. 

And if Indiana hopes to keep its bowl chances alive, it will need the defense to rise to the occasion in a big way as the Hoosiers travel to The Big House to take on No. 9 Michigan. The Wolverines enter this game with the top rushing offense in the Big Ten, gaining 239.9 yards per game with 25 total touchdowns.

Micah McFadden directs the defense at Penn State (Max Wood/HN).

Michigan utilizes a two-back set – Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum – that keeps the run game fresh and dangerous deep into games. Haskins and Corum have each found the end zone 10 times this season, combining for 1,435 rushing yards.

“You’ve got to have set edges,” Indiana defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said. “You’ve got to keep the ball in between defenders, and you have to swarm it with effort and energy on every play.”

Haskins has a slight edge over Corum in rush attempts and yards per carry, but the duo tends to split carries evenly each game. And if last week’s loss to Michigan State was any indication, the way to beat the Wolverines is to stop the ground attack.

In Michigan’s 37-33 loss to Michigan State, Haskins carried the ball 14 times for 59 yards, and Corum was close behind with 13 carries for 45 yards. Both tailbacks were kept out of the end zone in the Wolverines’ first loss of the season. 

Warren said Indiana will face the tremendous challenge of stuffing the middle against Michigan’s gap schemes while also containing the edge when the Wolverines run off tackle. For Warren, communication is always paramount, but it’s been emphasized even more this week.

Indiana's defense huddles at Beaver Stadium (Max Wood/HN).

Michigan’s offense is scoring at the second-highest rate among Big Ten teams at 37.1 points per game and poses a threat in more ways than just the run game. Warren said Michigan utilizes a variety of different formations, as well as a “two-headed monster” at quarterback.

Cade McNamara starts under center and is more of a traditional passer, but Michigan also has packages for backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who threatens defenses with his legs. This dynamic will force Indiana to adapt on the fly against the various ways Michigan moves the ball, offensively. 

And with just four games left in the regular season and a 2-6 record, Indiana has reached the literal must-win phase of the season. If it wishes to play in a bowl game for the third consecutive season and fourth time under Tom Allen, the Hoosiers will need to close the season with four consecutive wins.

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