With offenses running up the score, IU’s defense hoping not to fall victim

When the topic of high-scoring football games arose, Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack tried to feign ignorance.

“What?” a smiling Wommack asked. “Are people scoring points?

Wommack, who is the son of an SEC defensive coordinator, and also GA-ed at Ole Miss, certainly knows what is happening across the college football landscape — even if the Hoosiers’ first game is just a week away and he’d rather not believe what’s happening.

It was 63-48, Alabama over Ole Miss, this past Saturday. North Carolina topped Virginia Tech, 56-45. Oklahoma and Texas were just a couple of points shy of reaching the century mark, too, with the Sooners prevailing, 53-45, in four overtimes.

Whether it’s morbid curiosity or not, Wommack eventually admitted he’s taken a deeper look into the proceedings, studying game film to figure out what has most afflicted defenses so far.

“I think we do have the fortune to be able to learn from other people’s demise, I guess, in some ways,” Wommack said.

In the leadup to the 2020 season, there has been great hope in what IU’s defense can achieve. It’s a unit that has spent the better part of two seasons developing, striving to pair its increasing athleticism with a greater level of instinct and anticipation.

This is a year the Hoosiers could take another step toward becoming the top 25 defense IU coach Tom Allen covets. But first, they may have to wade through some of the issues that other college defenses are currently experiencing.

From what Wommack can tell, tackling hasn’t been up to snuff, which makes sense. There have been practices to prepare but not many have been full pads. And while offenses almost always play with some tempo nowadays, going fast and spreading the field every which way, it seems like offensive coordinators have taken their schemes to another level.

“I think offenses are really good and they attack the field in a lot of different directions,” Wommack said, “and you have some of the best minds in the country in the game of football that have had a lot of time on their hands in the last eight months.”

In the coming days, Wommack and the IU defense will turn their attention more specifically to No. 9 Penn State, which has weapons to stress the Hoosiers with. But Wommack has also tried to use the last few months to his advantage.

IU’s second-year defensive coordinator knew, for sure, that tackling was going to be an issue coming out of a start-and-stop offseason. So he spent a fair bit of time studying IU’s tackling fundamentals, watching film to figure out where the Hoosiers had failed.

Wommack’s studies led him to believe the Hoosiers needed to emphasize hard shoulder tackling in fall camp.

“If I’m moving to my left and the ballcarrier is on my left, I need to finish with a hard left shoulder tackle,” Wommack said. “It’s the understanding of ‘If this shoulder doesn’t turn, I’m way more likely to get that guy on the ground,’ as opposed to if I let that shoulder turn, or I don’t maximize that punch with a hard left shoulder, those ball carriers are going to be able to roll off.”

While the Hoosiers haven’t been hitting a ton, Wommack has focused on ways to simulate tackles every day in practice. And different types of tackles, whether they are in space or in the box.

That tackling work seemed to show up in the Hoosiers’ first intrasquad scrimmage, limiting misses and explosive plays. There was somewhat of a regression in the next week’s preseason game, but Wommack is still hopeful that the Hoosiers’ experience and “banked reps” will prevent a stumble out of the gate.

If the Hoosiers had to bring last year’s youthful defense into this season, unavoidably complicated by the pandemic, Wommack wouldn’t be so comfortable.

“That would have been a very scary scenario,” Wommack said. “We took our licks in a lot of situations last year with a lack of experience. I thought we did not start well in certain games. I thought the overarching theme, as you looked at last season, I don’t think we started clean enough and fast enough. So we have to make sure we are calling the right things and our players are executing the right things.”

Wommack, personally, has a season under his belt after serving as the Power 5’s youngest defensive coordinator in 2019. He saw what worked in wins over Northwestern, Rutgers, UConn, and Eastern Illinois, when the Hoosiers gave up a combined six points. He also saw where IU struggled in more competitive games, giving up 30-plus points in six other contests.

Limiting explosive plays is one big factor. Getting offenses to second- and third-and-long is another. But Wommack also just wants to see more resilience from his crew. 

“Even great defenses give up big plays and have bad series … but they find a way to respond to adversity and adjust,” Wommack said. “Sometimes we can make that first drive or first play of the game out to be a bigger thing than it actually is, outside of the first of about 80 plays in a game. There’s a lot of things that happen in a game that we have to be able to adjust and respond to.

“We’re a more mature team, we’re a more mature staff, and I’m a more mature coordinator within this league to understand that.”

Allen and Wommack have both pointed to specific examples of growth on the defense. Devon Matthews, the junior safety, has been mentioned repeatedly for his playmaking in camp. The entire linebacking corps has been highlighted as a strength, especially redshirt sophomore Aaron Casey this week. The defensive line has also played with more physicality, in Wommack’s estimation.

If all of those things translate to regular season play, the Hoosiers could build up from last year’s 36th-in-the-country finish in total defense. On the other hand, with point totals piling up as they have in recent weeks, Wommack can’t be sure what kind of outputs will earn a top 25 defensive ranking this year.

“I think we’ve got a chance to do that,” Wommack said. “I don’t know what national stats are going to look like this year, with teams playing a lot of conference games and all that. But I do know the standard in this league. And in my mind, there’s a certain standard I want us to play to.”

(above photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

12 comments

  1. Today the Detroit Free Press ranked the Big Ten QBs. #14 was Noah Vedral (Rutgers). #1 was Justin Fields (OSU). Michael Penix Jr. was (drum roll, please) . . . . #5. Right behind #4 Peyton Ramsey. Who is backed up at NU by former five star QB from Clemson Hunter Johnson. Go figure.

    1. Ramsey is a gamer…but you gotta be nuts to rank him #4. Anything thrown over 30 yards needs a postage stamp to be delivered first class. If he gets a typical Chicago northerly gale (not to be confused with Sayers) to send the mail , he could look like Bobby Douglas for one half.
      During the half against the gale, his name might as well be Engelbert Dumperdinck.

      And Penix hasn’t earned anything with such limited play.

      Just preseason puffery….

  2. Sounds about right and is good for Penix. Since Penix didn’t play as much as Ramsey last year it is no surprise that Ramsey is ranked ahead of Penix. Now, teams know about Penix and scouting reports will focus on him. Teams will prepare for Penix. So, Hoosier fans are assuming big things from him. IU has to have both, balance of pass and ground game balance. It remains to be seen how IU effective pass game and Penix will be after opposing teams and coaches implement their defensive strategies. IU football fans are assuming based on hope that has short term Penix performance. Full season remains to be seen.

  3. This season will tell how the QBs in the B1G perform and how well the teams perform. Preseason rankings aren’t worth much but are fun to read and consider. I want Penix to stay healthy all season this year and if he doesn’t IU has a talented QB behind him that needs some serious playing time when possible. Many writers dismiss IU players and it is up to this team to show they are far better than those writers think.

  4. I hope somebody taped that QB ranking to Penix’s locker door! That has to motivate the young man more than anything his coaches could say to him. I think it’s ridiculous, but I’m glad it got published. And I have no doubt that his teammates are going to be motivated to elevate Penis up that list.

  5. I know the trend these days is to reduce the number of practices with full-on tackling drills, but I think you could make an argument that for the health and safety of today’s youngest players, they need more practice, not less. You don’t have to have drills that require guys running 20 yards at full speed at each other, but if you arrive in college with bad tackling form (i.e., lowering your head), you increase the risk of getting injured during games when it is full speed. I’d be requiring “soft” tackling drills with full pads in the majority of the practices, and full-speed tackling drills once a week.

    This issue still with IU’s defense is still one of my major concerns.

  6. If we can have “virtual fans,” virtual players and virtual teams can’t be far behind. As long as we can gamble on a prognosticated result, it won’t be too long before an “athlete” is an outdated concept. Technology already used to put various images and crap all over the field of play that really isn’t there. Are we sure we’re not watching some sort of partial video game already? Pandemics won’t stop sports. Sports is too important. When something is too important, humans become very replaceable.
    Better cash the checks now…

    Maybe those guys at the Detroit paper were ranking a “virtual” Ramsey…and not the guy who was a world-beater while playing cupcakes.

  7. I’m somewhat convinced of computer generated “fake” athletes invading our games/viewing screens. How else could any real kicker hit an upright or crossbar as many times as Cody Parkey? David Blane must be currently studying Parkey’s massive illusion. If it’s not doink magic then It’s gotta be fake football…just like fake news……and fake everything else.
    It must be a way the networks and leagues are working in some computer generated humorous characters into games.
    https://bearswire.usatoday.com/2020/10/12/chicago-bears-former-kicker-cody-parkey-doinks-field-goal-in-win-against-cleveland-browns/

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