Healthy offense could be difference for IU defense

For years, the constant criticism of Indiana’s defense provided some degree of motivation to players such as Adarius Rayner.

IU was too slow and too porous over the top, the critics said — often correctly. The Hoosiers couldn’t stop the pass, and the running lanes were wide and gaping.

But this season, Rayner isn’t listening to talk like that. He no longer feels the need to build momentum from put downs. Indiana’s defense took noticeable steps forward last fall and, to Rayner and those who know best, the progress was greater than the numbers indicate.

“We’ve made consistent improvement on the defense even though people act like they can’t see it,” Rayner said.

One reason for defensive optimism stems from what’s coming back on the other side of the ball. The loss of IU quarterback Nate Sudfeld was a blow to the offense last year, but it had left a significant ripple effect upon the Hoosier defense, too. IU defenders had to take on a great burden while the offense failed to move the ball and sustain drives with an unprepared true freshman quarterback in Zander Diamont.

In the Hoosiers’ final 61/2 games without Sudfeld, the offense produced 48 quick outs — measured as futile, non-scoring possessions including three-and-outs or three-and-outs following a a one-play first down to start the drive. Of Indiana’s 96 possessions without Sudfeld, those quick outs combined for exactly 50 percent of IU’s time on offense.

Of course, it could be argued that the up-tempo IU offense regularly moves at a pace that puts the defense at a disadvantage, but last season’s second-half futility only compounded things.

“With the quarterback deal, they had a choice to give up,” IU coach Kevin Wilson said. “The team didn’t.”

In the aggregate numbers, the IU defense gave up an average of one fewer touchdown per game and jumped 27 spots in the final total defense rankings to 93rd. Progress was measurable, and even then it may have been better than the final numbers indicate.

Over a three-game stretch in November against Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers, the Hoosiers might have had a trio of opportunities to pull through with adequate offensive play. IU was competitive against the Wolverines, but posted eight quick outs and finished with only 191 total yards, including 24 passing. A week later against Penn State, the Hoosiers’ offense didn’t score a touchdown and once again finished with eight quick outs. On the other side of the ball, they held the Nittany Lions to 330 total yards and watched Christian Hackenberg complete only 12 of his 29 passing attempts.

At Rutgers, IU held a 16-10 lead three minutes into the second half before posting three of its seven quick outs that afternoon over the next 15 minutes and allowing the Scarlet Knights to take over.

Now, Sudfeld’s back, and Indiana’s focus between the spring and summer has centered on generating a pass rush to rattle the opposition’s quarterback. The Big Ten has at least a handful of dynamic pass rushers this season, but Wilson still isn’t sure if his team has one. What the Hoosiers do have is a front seven that is bigger, deeper and faster than at any point in Wilson’s first four seasons.

Nick Mangieri, who was already known as a pass rusher at the bandit position, moves back to his more naturalspot at defensive end, where he’ll replace Bobby Richardson. That leaves Zack Shaw and Nile Sykes to man the bandit. Darius Latham came on strong as a sophomore and could be poised for a big season this fall, while Rayner and Nate Hoff provide bulk and push at nose tackle.

For Indiana to improve its pass rush, each of those players needs to improve their one-on-one matchups. Wilson is leaving things up to defensive coordinator Brian Knoor to decide how to pick his spots to blitz, but the IU coach wants to see his players form a more effective pass rush without overexposing its blitzing patterns.

“You gotta be careful, because you have a young secondary,” Wilson said. “If you start doing a lot of pressure, you start putting stress back there, so you gotta figure that out. I don’t know (how the pass rush will look) until we see what Shaw and Sykes can do off the edge. Mangieri is now playing what was a D-Tackle. He’s a little bit more athletic, so until we get in a couple games, I think coach Knorr is going to have to be pretty crafty.”

But with an emerging defensive core entering its second season in Knorr’s 3-4 scheme, IU appears to have a solid foundation off which to build.

2 comments

  1. Great article explaining the connection between an effective offense and the performance of the defense. And I believe the issue was magnified last year given Wilson’s devotion to maintaining a hyper-fast pace on offense. In many games, the defense hardly had time to catch their breath before they were back on the field. Over time, even the best conditioned athletes get worn down without proper rest.

    Stay healthy Nate!

  2. Mike, another great analysis of IU football heading into this season. I truly believe the defense showed enough moxie and improvement the second half of the season that paired with a potent offense will see this team surprise many people.

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