BLOOMINGTON – Seeing that Michigan State’s Rockey Lombardi went for 300-plus yards and three touchdowns on Michigan’s defense last week, it would seem reasonable for Indiana to air it out against the Wolverines.
But it’s hard to win Big Ten football games without at least establishing the run, and MSU did that just enough, gaining 126 yards on 3.3 per carry. IU has to find its proper balance Saturday versus Michigan, and IU coach Tom Allen isn’t giving away the formula.
“You may use the pass to set up the run, or you may use the run to set up the pass. Some games are different,” Allen said. “They do make it very difficult to run the football against everybody.”
The battle in the trenches will be in the spotlight for No. 13 IU versus No. 23 Michigan, both because the Hoosiers’ 14th-ranked Big Ten rush offense is still trying to gain its footing, and the Wolverines have, at times, made it hard for IU to run the ball.
Even with a 190-yard outburst on the Wolverines in 2018, IU has accumulated 431 yards on 142 carries in the last four matchups, just a 3-yard-per-carry average. Last year, the Hoosiers had 97 yards on the ground, but it was hard-earned. Those yards came at just 2.6 yards per clip — and a contest that was 14-all midway through the second quarter went to the Wolverines, 39-14.
“Common sense tells you, the more yards you get there, the more effective it was,” Allen said of the run game more broadly. “To me, it’s about making them honor it and respect it and keep the defense on their heels.”
Michigan has bodies up front, as always. Kwity Paye, a 6-foot-4, 272-pound senior, is considered an NFL-level talent. There are more prototype bodies, as well, in Carlo Kemp (6-3, 286) and Aidan Hutchinson (6-6, 269).
Allen isn’t prescribing a number of runs IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan has to call to “balance” the Hoosiers’ attack. But they have to do enough to make Paye and Co. respect the run, because there can’t be undue pressure on IU’s pass phase.
“If they can just (pin) their ears back and treat every play like it’s a pass play, that gives them a tremendous advantage that makes it very, very difficult for the offense,” Allen said. “That, to me, is what it comes down to. There is no magic number of snaps you have to run it. There’s no magic number of yards you have to get.”
While running lanes for Stevie Scott were more frequent last week in Piscataway, and Sampson James got his first significant run of the season with seven carries for 33 yards, there were times when Michigan transfer Michael Dwumfour caused serious issues on the interior for the Hoosiers. His former teammates are a chore, as well.
The Wolverines are allowing just 3.2 yards per carry on the ground, making them one of seven defenses in the Big Ten holding teams under 3.5, along with Penn State (3.5), Michigan State (3.4), Northwestern (3.3), Illinois (3.1), and Iowa (2.8). The Hoosiers faced PSU in Week 1, and they just played the conference’s leader in that category, Rutgers, which is limiting opponents to just 2 yards per.
The strength of Big Ten defenses, as well as the time of year the Hoosiers are playing, makes establishing the run a priority.
“We’re already in November, and we’re only on our third game, so it’s not going to get any warmer,” Sheridan said. “You’re going to need to be able to run the football, especially when the weather starts to turn, even more than it already has. That will be important and we’ll continue to emphasize it, and we saw improvement.”
The good news is the Hoosiers made advances in Week 2 versus the Scarlet Knights, with 145 yards on the ground, as opposed to just 71 versus the Nittany Lions. Allen expects an IU o-line that’s integrating two new starters at offensive guard to continue to make strides as the season goes along.
“We saw that in some key things on Saturday at Rutgers, and we need that to continue against a very talented front seven for Michigan,” Allen said. “To me, that’s part of our expectation and the progress we have to make each and every week.”
On the injury front
There was no update Thursday on offensive skill players David Ellis and Miles Marshall, who both missed the win at Rutgers.
Ellis, the 6-foot, 213-pound running back/receiver, has yet to play this season because of a lower-leg injury. Marshall took a hit to the head on a PSU targeting call in the second half of the home opener.
But Allen did clear up the status of offensive tackle Matthew Bedford, who waived to the sideline to come off the field near the end of the Rutgers game. The sophomore right tackle has been practicing with the team all week, Allen said, and should play.
Last week’s somewhat early exit for Bedford did provide an opportunity for back-up offensive tackle Luke Haggard to see the field. Allen expressed confidence in the 6-7, 275-pound junior, who is a transfer from Santa Rosa Junior College (Calif.).
“He’s a guy we’ve been very impressed with in his development here since he came this last January,” Allen said. “I expect him to play. I just think we want to have three tackles here we can move around, and all three guys can play, just like you think you have three guys who can play at guard (Dylan Powell, Mike Katic, and Mackenze Nworah).”
Depth along the offensive line was a top concern for the Hoosiers coming into the year, just because of a lack of experience. Haggard, along with redshirt junior Chris Bradberry, were two JUCO additions. Redshirt sophomore Aidan Rafferty and redshirt junior Britt Beery both saw the field versus Rutgers, as well.
“In this situation we’re in with COVID and all that creates with your depth and guys staying healthy, for a variety of reasons, we are going to have to have depth on that offensive line,” Allen said. “They have to make plays when they are called upon, and they have to do a great job of being ready at all times.”