Hoosier o-line continues to mesh

Right tackle Caleb Jones remembers Indiana’s halftime lead over Rutgers as healthy but not wholly satisfying.

For the big men on the Hoosier offensive line, a three-touchdown advantage and 62 rushing yards weren’t going to be adequate.

“We have to assert our dominance,” Jones said. “Yeah, we are winning 21-0, but we should be winning by more, you know what I’m saying? Going into the locker room, it was all right, we want to put this ball on the ground, we want to get 200-plus rushing yards, so you have to put your hand in the dirt and make it happen.”

This season, it’s been especially hard for IU’s offensive line to assert itself. A slow start through three weeks was compounded by a season-ending injury to senior left tackle Coy Cronk. Even in the Rutgers game, the Hoosiers lost Hunter Littlejohn to a lower-leg injury, though it’s believed the senior center should be OK for this weekend’s game at Maryland.

In spite of those issues, Jones and his counterparts have found a way to keep the train moving, and against the worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers were able to assert a new level of dominance over their opponent.

Within the first six rushes of the second half, IU sophomore running back Stevie Scott had gashes of 31 and 57 yards. The Hoosiers finished with 260 yards on the ground, an 82-yard improvement on their previous season’s best versus UConn (178).
Injuries to a team’s front line can be particularly painful, but IU coach Tom Allen said he believes a major loss, like that of a senior leader like Cronk, can galvanize a unit.

Staying together remains on their minds.

“I’d say the energy is still there,” Jones said. “We are still feeding off the fact that one of the guys that keeps the group together is not there. Every day is basically making sure we all got each other’s back, you know what I’m saying? We are working together, we are communicating. Nobody is on a different page.”

Jones may be the most prescient example of a player stepping up. In his first two years with the team, the 6-foot-8, 358-pound tackle struggled with his weight. The Indianapolis native arrived at IU at 405 pounds.

But this year, his first as a starter, he has been one of the more reliable pieces of the line, protecting the blindside of lefty quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Pro Football Focus honored Jones as one of its two Big Ten offensive tackles of the week after the Rutgers performance.

While the running game took a step forward versus the Scarlet Knights, IU’s pass blocking has been a bright spot all year. As a team, IU has allowed eight sacks, which is tied for the least in the Big Ten with Wisconsin. Five of those mistakes came versus Ohio State in Week 3, before Cronk’s ankle injury.

Communication between the quarterbacks and the offensive line has been key to keeping that figure where it is. The solid play of a true freshman left tackle, Matthew Bedford, has also played a key role in keeping Penix upright.

But the Hoosiers’ blockers continue to be tested in new ways. Jones, the redshirt sophomore, actually became one of the more experienced guys on the line when redshirt freshman Charlie O’Connor entered the game for Littlejohn.

“After the first few games and after Coy went down especially, it was just kind of sucking it up and taking on the role of being an older guy,” Jones said. “Even if I’m not technically an older guy, in comparison to some of the other guys that are playing, I am.

“I had to make sure not only was I doing OK but other guys, I was bringing them along with me. It’s five guys as a cohesive unit that have to play well.”

Facing off against a Maryland squad with plenty of offensive potential, it’s in IU’s best interests to have its running game working, especially if it keeps the ball out of the Terrapins’ hands and the Hoosier defense off the field for a time.

Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer was pleased with what he saw from IU’s front five when Littlejohn came out versus Rutgers. In the fourth quarter, the Hoosiers went on a 98-yard drive that sucked 7:07 off the clock.

“I was impressed with how the offensive line took it upon each other, again, to make up for what we lost,” DeBoer said. “I think that’s what great teams do. They believe in each other.”

No matter who is in the game, the Hoosier line is holding onto that belief.

“I have faith in all the guys in our room. They all bring something to the table and they are all good in their own way,” Jones said. “They wouldn’t be here, and they wouldn’t be in a position to play, if they couldn’t.”

One comment

  1. Better to peak in the second half of the season than it is to peak in the first six weeks. let’s hope that IU’s O-line has yet to play their best game.

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