At one point in the second half, after watching his backup quarterback get stuffed on a fourth-down read option, Kevin Wilson stood on the sideline with his head hung and both hands on his hips.
The Indiana coach was a portrait of frustration as he watched another underwhelming offensive performance slow his team at the midway point of the season.
Saturday’s 27-22 homecoming loss to No. 10 Nebraska was another winnable game that Indiana failed to seize. Though the Hoosiers played from behind all day, they made the kinds of winning plays in the defensive and special teams phases that are necessary against ranked opponents.
They did so only to watch a punchless offense drag this team to a loss, yet again.
This is an Indiana team that is in between identities. Know as an explosive and prolific offensive program for much of Wilson’s first five years as a coach, IU is caught in a sea change in Year 6.
Right now, answers are in short supply.
“The ultimate gain is victories, and that means that’s where the offense has got to come through,” Wilson said. “It’s not about the stats. It’s not about the numbers. It’s putting it together. We should have been probably better than we were last year with the guys we’ve got. Right now, hey, you play the cards you’ve got.”
Against the Cornhuskers, the Hoosiers’ defense surely quenched coordinator Tom Allen’s thirst for takeaways with a pair of interceptions against quarterback Tommy Armstrong. But the IU offense managed a mere field goal off those turnovers.
Nebraska, meanwhile, played angry at the outset, building a 17-0 lead in the first 10 minutes. IU held the Huskers to only 10 points the rest of the way, but the offense failed to do its part in a game — much like the non-conference finale against Wake Forest — that the Hoosiers may come to regret.
Clearly, the Huskers were excited to escape Bloomington with the win. After the game, the ceiling of the press box elevator was soaked with water — remnants of a rowdy Nebraska coaching staff and their water bottles, according to one Memorial Stadium staffer.
Indiana hasn’t defeated a top-10 opponent in 29 years — and there would be no upset on this day, either.
With his offense freezing in the second quarter, Wilson inserted backup Zander Diamont, and the junior gave Indiana an initial jolt thanks to his shifty scrambling ability. But that’s a gimmick that can only work for so long. Nebraska adjusted to Diamont’s presence — he appeared in spurts throughout the remainder of the game — and locked down on Indiana’s ground game for most of the day.
With 17 yards, Diamont was Indiana’s leading rusher at halftime. The Hoosiers finished averaging only 2.9 yards per carry.
Using Diamont situationally was worth a shot, because at the moment, Indiana needs help.
“Every year is different, every team is different,” Diamont said. “I think the tendency is to look at last year’s team, look at Nate (Sudfeld), look at our dynamic and sort of assume we’re going to have the same dynamic this year. It’s just not the case. The team’s a little different this year.”
That much is clear. Look at the defense, which held the Huskers 10 points and 112 yards below their season averages.
Safeties Jonathan Crawford and Tony Fields both made interceptions, which were great developments until the offense fell short on its end of the deal.
The special teams unit, too, did its part. Chase Dutra was credited for the key play on a blocked punt that dribbled out of the end zone for a safety, accounting for IU’s first points in the second quarter. Kicker Griffin Oakes hit field goals of 36 and 45 yards, and may have had a couple opportunities to add more if he weren’t suffering from a “slight quadricep pull,” Wilson.
Yet, as poor as IU’s offense played, the Hoosiers were once again in a one-possession game.
They closed the third quarter with running back Devine Redding’s first touchdown of the season on a 33-yard fake reverse that cut IU’s deficit to 17-15. After Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan scored on a freak play from 72 yards out early in the fourth, Redding and IU responded with a four-yar touchdown reception to get the Hoosiers within 24-22 with eight minutes left.
A Drew Brown field goal in the final minute forced Indiana to seek a touchdown in the final 45 seconds of regulation, but Lagow tossed an interception on the second play of the drive — a fitting ending to a forgettable game.
As the Huskers celebrated the pick by safety Aaron Williams, Lagow took a long, slow walk to the Indiana bench, then sat next to Diamont and threw both hands up as if he, too, lacked the necessary answers.
“We’ve got to get the offense up to speed,” Wilson said. “Each year — just because you’ve been good on offense doesn’t mean you’re going to (be) every week. Just because you’ve been bad on defense doesn’t mean you’re going to be bad again. Each team is different.”
And these Hoosiers are still trying to learn who they are.