When Indiana got the ball back towards the beginning of the fourth quarter Saturday, it desperately needed its offense to step up. It trailed by seven after the defense had allowed a 71-yard touchdown pass the previous drive, but it had already come back from a two-score deficit earlier.
Instead, the offense disappeared entirely, producing five total yards in the final quarter of its 35-21 loss to Nebraska on Saturday.
"We beat ourselves tonight,” quarterback Connor Bazelak said after the game. “We gotta blame ourselves. They didn’t beat us on offense.”
The winner came on the 71-yard pass play from Nebraska quarterback Casey Thompson to wide receiver Trey Palmer. Palmer, who finished the night with 157 yards, waltzed into the end zone and Indiana never came close again.
“You’re playing against really good teams every week and you better execute on both sides of the ball and special teams,” head coach Tom Allen said.
The game was constantly teetering on the edge of getting out of hand. The Cornhuskers looked to pack more of a punch early on, taking a two-score lead late in the second half. But the Hoosiers fought back on their two ensuing possessions.
For two drives at the end of the first half, the Hoosiers realized the potential of their no-huddle offense. They kept the Cornhuskers off balance with their pace. Both drives went for over 70 yards.
Despite coming out of halftime with momentum and a chance to take the lead, Indiana’s offense was lackluster for most of the second half. Indiana couldn’t replicate the production from those first-half drives, which produced exactly half of the team’s 290 total yards.
“We had several key drops that hurt us,” Allen said. “It’s about execution. When our guys do that, positive things happen. When we don’t, it’s not good enough.”
The Hoosiers were without two of their biggest playmakers on offense, and their absence was evident. Wide receiver D.J. Matthews Jr. didn't play after leaving the Cincinnati game early with an injury and Cam Camper, who leads the team in receiving yards, didn’t travel with the team due to a non-COVID illness. Emery Simmons was the leading receiver in their place, hauling in six catches for 57 yards.
After Nebraska intercepted Indiana on its first drive of the second half, Indiana went three-and-out on three of its next four drives, including two in which they looked much more concerned with avoiding a safety than moving the ball down the field.
“At the end of the first half we got things rolling, and I thought we were going to be able to keep that going in the second half,” Bazelak said. “Then we kinda got killed by field position... that’s tough.”
In a last-chance effort down 14, facing third-and-16 with three minutes remaining in the game, Indiana needed a play to stay alive. Bazelak was forced to scramble and found tight end AJ Barner on the run — for a two-yard completion well short of the sticks that all but ended Indiana’s comeback dreams.
Indiana’s offensive line continues to be an issue, making it harder for Bazelak to have enough time to make his reads or for the run game to get started. Nebraska had six quarterback hurries and three sacks, and Indiana ran for 67 yards on 23 attempts.
In his press conference, Bazelak said he didn’t feel like the offensive line allowed much pressure, but Allen said he’ll continue to evaluate which line gives the team the best chance to win. The Hoosiers switched up the offensive line Saturday, moving Mike Katic to center and placing Zach Carpenter at guard in his return from a hand injury.
The teams combined for 23 penalties in a messy game. Indiana was tagged for 11 penalties for 92 yards, including a pass interference penalty on Emery Simmons that erased a 29-yard gain early in the third quarter. Nebraska was penalized 12 times for 111 yards.
With the loss, and a schedule that gets increasingly difficult as Indiana opens its Big Ten East slate next week against Michigan, Indiana’s offense comes under more scrutiny.
“We’re going to evaluate playcalling and maximization of our execution and how we’re going to get ourselves better,” Allen said. “Bottom line is we’re not getting the job done.”