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'If you don't believe, then stay home:' IU to bring downfield offense against Michigan

With an offense featuring 6-foot-4 receiver Donavan Hale and 6-foot-3 wideout Nick Westbrook, Indiana's lack of downfield passing had been rather puzzling. After all, Westbrook nearly reached 1,000 yards as a sophomore (54 receptions, 995 yards) and has only accumulated 30 receptions for 381 yards this season, with two games remaining.

It became so puzzling that questions arose at what the difficulty was. Were Westbrook and Hale struggling to create separation on the outside? Was offensive coordinator Mike DeBord not calling many plays with downfield options? Or was quarterback Peyton Ramsey more comfortable over the middle to slot receivers Luke Timian, J-Shun Harris, and when healthy, Whop Philyor?

Whatever the holdup was, Tom Allen had seen enough of IU's stagnant passing game. Ramsey completed eight passes of 10+ yards in IU's 34-32 win against Maryland last week. Hale was found for a 37-yard touchdown and a 43-yard play. Ramsey connected with Westbrook for a 19-yard score, and 6-foot-2 receiver Ty Fryfogle for 35 yards. All four plays were beautifully thrown by Ramsey, mostly coming over-the-shoulder down the sideline. The Terrapins were also called for defensive pass interference four times. Ramsey set a career-high with 8.68 yards per attempt.

"They're probably tired of hearing me say it," Allen said after Maryland. "Throw the ball down the field. Okay? We got big receivers, I live in that world, DB's aren't as big as the receivers and it's hard to cover them. So you get interference calls and we got a bunch of those. It's hard, I know you can't do it every snap obviously, but it's an objective for sure. And I just know that I don't like having to go against those kinds of receivers and so it was very effective today for us and it won us the game."

Indiana has suffered at least a three-game losing streak in every season since 1993. The Hoosiers lost four straight here in 2018, starting with Ohio State in the first week of October. In Columbus, IU's offense came out attacking. 13 of Ramsey's 26 completed passes were over 10 yards. It was an Indiana offense that simply did not exist against Michigan State and Rutgers.

In the loss to Michigan State, Hale and Westbrook combined for five receptions and 45 yards. In the win against Rutgers, Hale and Westbrook combined for seven receptions and 91 yards. As the Hoosiers finish preparations for No. 4 Michigan this Saturday, Allen expects IU to attack the Wolverines.

“Bottom line is you have to be able to throw the ball downfield to create running lanes for you," Allen said Thursday. "I think you have to win those one-on-ones. That’s a big key for us and a big thing to look for when you watch the game.”

Michigan boasts the nation's top defense, allowing an average of 220 total yards per game -- and only 116 passing yards per game. Those numbers are daunting, given the nation's next-best passing defense is Miami (Fla.), at 134 passing yards per game.

But in large part, Indiana was competitive in Columbus because it challenged Ohio State's defensive backs to cover the combination of Hale/Westbrook down the sideline, and Harris/Timian over the middle. Based on talent, the Hoosiers have one of the better receiving corps in the Big Ten. Ramsey is also the conference's most accurate quarterback behind Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins. IU running back Stevie Scott is second nationally among freshmen rushers, and benefits greatly from downfield passing.

Indiana has the offensive pieces to give any defense a scare. But the Hoosiers have not faced one as stout as Michigan, despite dealing with the nation's top rushing defense earlier in Michigan State. The Wolverines have explosive pass rushers such as Josh Uche (seven sacks), endless linebacker talent like Chase Winovich (12 tackles for loss), and proven defensive backs in Brandon Watson (three interceptions).

"Don Brown does a phenomenal job," Allen said of Michigan's defensive coordinator. "He’s great. He had the No. 1 defense in the country at Boston College, and they don’t have four or five-star athletes there. They play a ton of man coverage. They play a very aggressive style of in-your-face defense and they have a phenomenal defense line and linebacking corps that smothers you in the run game. They play such tight man coverage that there’s not a large margin for error. They’re sound and creative in their scheme and have a lot of great athletes running the scheme.”

Conservative offense has forced Indiana into large deficits like Michigan State (28-7) and Minnesota (31-9). Aggressive, downfield offense has resulted in giving the Hoosiers a chance against the likes of Ohio State. Two games remain for this young Indiana team, and the Hoosiers must win once to reach bowl eligibility. Saturday's meeting with Michigan is IU's toughest task of the year, and the Hoosiers have not beaten the Wolverines since the magical 1987 season. But Allen has zero intention of playing to lose in Ann Arbor.

“I told our team, ‘If you don’t believe, then stay home.’ Because I believe," Allen said.

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