CINCINNATI -- For three weeks, Indiana football baffled fans with rocky starts and dazzling comebacks, working its way to a 3-0 record.
But against three teams Indiana should be competing with, it was difficult to tell what kind of team the Hoosiers are. In Cincinnati on Saturday, playing its toughest competition of the year, Indiana didn’t do a better job displaying its identity.
Indiana’s secondary was burned and its offense was stifled in the first half. In the second half, the Hoosiers were in control on both sides of the ball, but they were never able to overcome its early mistakes in a 45-24 loss.
“We weren’t consistent in our execution,” head coach Tom Allen said in a postgame press conference. “It just snowballed as the lead got further and further away from us in the first half.”
Indiana’s continued ability to adjust at halftime has been a reassuring talent through four weeks, but its inability to bring that success into the first half has been a frustration for Allen.
Indiana entered halftime down 38-10 and was outgained 323 to 168 in the first two quarters.
Indiana needed to turn in its cleanest and best performance of the season to keep up with Cincinnati. It started promising, with the defense forcing a punt on the opening drive. Then it started unraveling.
Before long, Indiana was watching Cincinnati score twice in the last minute of the first half, including a scoop-and-score after Connor Bazelak was sacked and Indiana didn’t see the loose ball.
The Indiana secondary, typically one of the team’s best units, made uncharacteristic mistakes throughout the first half. Defensive back Tiawan Mullen was beat in coverage multiple times. Cincinnati quarterback Ben Bryant threw four completions of over thirty yards. Nearly all of the Bearcats’ first half production came through the air, including four touchdown passes.
“Usually we don’t allow that,” Mullen said. “That’s not our DNA. That’s unacceptable on my end.”
On the other side of the ball, Indiana’s offense was flat. Its only touchdown came on a possession that began at Cincinnati’s 39-yard line.
“It’s concerning, there’s no doubt, because then you start developing a pattern,” Allen said. “At first you go through it, you have your growing pains with new guys, but now it's into week 4 and it needs to be behind us.”
Even with a better second half performance, the Hoosiers were far away from ever putting it all together. Indiana outgained Cincinnati, 180 yards to 71, but four of its last six drives stalled and ended in turnovers on downs, including one in Cincinnati’s red zone.
“I think we’re close, we just got to find ways to start drives well,” Bazelak said. “I’ve said it a bunch, just getting in rhythm on offense. Winning first down and getting four or five yards on first down.”
What doomed Indiana in its first loss, and nearly cost it more in its first three games, was the inability to put together a full offensive performance.
“We have got to find ways to score touchdowns in the first quarter,” Bazelak said. “Can’t put our defense behind and put ourselves behind in games like this.”
The Hoosiers were a mediocre team, outclassed and outperformed in the first half, digging a hole too deep to ever climb out of. Their perfect start may not have been a complete fluke, but their remaining conference schedule looks much more daunting.
But if Indiana wants to build on the success of its first three wins heading into its game next Saturday at Nebraska, Allen might have a new strategy.
"Tell them it's halftime right before we start," he said.