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Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak prepares for a snap during Indiana's win over Illinois on Sept. 2. (HN photo/Max Wood)
Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak prepares for a snap during Indiana's win over Illinois on Sept. 2. (HN photo/Max Wood)

Three things Indiana football needs to do to knock off Cincinnati in its first road game

Connor Bazelak has shown improvement, but can the run defense follow suit?

Indiana football has spent its first three weeks of the season clawing back from behind and putting up improbable comebacks to start the season 3-0. The Hoosiers, who started the season facing programs most assumed it needed to beat to improve on last year’s outlook, now head to Cincinnati for its toughest challenge yet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

Indiana had then-No. 4 Cincinnati on its heels last year in Bloomington, but watched its halftime lead disappear in a 38-24 loss. The Bearcats, who went to the College Football Playoff last season, lost a large chunk of their production but still have proved efficient through the first three weeks.

In order for Indiana to leave Cincinnati with a win, here’s what the Hoosiers need to do.

Bazelak needs to continue settling in

Indiana quarterback Connor Bazelak warms up before Indiana's overtime win over Western Kentucky on Sept. 17. (HN photo/Max Wood)

In his first three weeks in an Indiana uniform, Connor Bazelak has seemed to control more of the offense each time out. 

Bazelak won the starting quarterback job this season after transferring from Missouri, and head coach Tom Allen has contributed some of his struggles to learning the offense and the program. But each week, Bazelak has shown a better understanding of his team’s identity.

“It's just maturing of the offense, it's just confidence in the people around him and developing those relationships,” Allen said in his Monday press conference. “Being able to continue to develop as a verbal leader and say what needs to be said to the team in those moments on the sideline. And when you're out on the field, you're ready to take the field.”

Bazelak’s numbers have matched his growth. His completion percentage has increased from 53.8% to 55.2% to 60% week over week. His passing yards increased from Week 1 to Week 3, although Bazelak threw less in Week 2 because of the weather and the score.

In the first half alone, tied in with Indiana’s slow starts, Bazelak has seen his numbers get better. After an 11-for-24 start against Illinois, Bazelak hit 7 of 17 passes in the first half against Idaho and went 20-for-30 against Western Kentucky.

The second half, late in games, has been where Bazelak has shined — a 75-yard drive to beat Illinois, on which he was 6-for-9, and another 75-yard drive against Western Kentucky to tie the game.

“Looking back, I’d like myself to be more that way throughout the whole game,” Bazelak said. “Be more accurate, stuff like that, but it’s still early in the season.”

Shut down the run

Indiana has struggled to stop the run in the first three weeks. Illinois’ Chase Brown, who currently leads the country in rushing yards, ran for 199 yards against an Indiana defense that missed 18 tackles. Brown had 157 yards after contact.

The Bearcats are averaging 160.7 rushing yards per game. Indiana, meanwhile, is allowing 186 yards per game and ranks 108th in the country in run defense.

“We had four runs that gave them 80% of their yards,” Allen said. “There were some big-chunk runs that they get you all spread out, so you lose some of your layers. But I felt like I over adjusted some things at halftime to try to get some help there and it didn't work.” 

The Hoosiers have given up 17 chunk plays of over 20 yards through three weeks — 106th nationally and 13th in the Big Ten in terms of plays allowed of 20 or more yards. Seven were on plays on the ground, as well as two more runs of 19 yards against Western Kentucky. 

“We’ve identified what some of those issues were,” defensive coordinator Chad Wilt said. “Communications, making sure all 11 guys are on the same page, that we’re playing the calls and our eyes are right where we need to be on some of the explosive plays that we gave up. And we need to tackle better too.”

Find another breakout week

The Hoosiers’ success so far has been guided by its leaders and the names you’d expect to find on the box score, but they’ve also had a new player or two step up each week to fill in holes. 

After only totaling one tackle and little else in the first two weeks, Myles Jackson picked off Western Kentucky in the end zone Saturday. The play sparked Indiana’s offense, helping the team come back late in the second half. 

Jackson’s interception was huge for Indiana’s momentum and for the UCLA transfer’s season. But Wilt wasn’t surprised by his play.

“We knew he would help our football team this year,” Wilt said. “It was in leadership, production in practices, in how hard he plays. The interception but also the fumble recovery (in the fourth quarter), the fumble recovery is a result of playing hard. We talk about the ball finding energy and he's a guy who always has energy.”

Jackson’s breakout showed up alongside Caleb Murphy’s. Murphy, a sophomore lineman from Campbellsburg, Indiana, made his first career start Saturday at center after Zach Carpenter was injured during warm-ups. 

Murphy played every snap and was named the team’s offensive player of the week. 

“Just a great testament to him, how hard he's worked and how much he cares,” Allen said. “You can win a lot of games, but for guys that are smart, tough, dependable and have a high, high care factor, it means something for him to put that jersey on and represent his whole community. And that's a pretty awesome thing."

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