Hoosier defense hopes to create havoc for UW’s Mertz

On his fourth interception of the season, cornerback Jaylin Williams displayed some of the athleticism that has made Indiana’s secondary special.

Once a pass from Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa was in his hands, Williams made a quick spin away from the receiver he stole it from. Then the former two-way skill player from Memphis, Tenn., juked inside of an incoming lineman, finding a crease to zip up the sideline for a big gain.

The quick feet and vision Williams displayed has been a key ingredient for IU’s secondary, which has picked off more passes, 16, than any program in FBS football. It’s a group that has made once-successful quarterbacks like Tagovailoa into lesser versions of themselves.

Combine the completions and attempts of Tagovailoa, Michigan’s Joe Milton, Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi, and Ohio State’s Justin Fields, and they were connecting on 68.3 percent of their passes before facing IU. Against the Hoosiers, those four quarterbacks completed a combined 51.9 percent.

Not only has IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack been able to bring a variety of blitzes with linebackers, safeties, and corners, but those secondary pieces have been able to play more zone, or “vision,” coverage behind it. Instead of just manning up and running with a receiver, they can read a quarterback and break on the ball.

“Our ability to put more eyes on the quarterback, so we can attack the ball when it’s in the air, has been a difference in our ability to create takeaways this season, and those things have to continue,” Wommack said. “But you don’t do that without instinctive athletes, and that’s certainly what we have on the back end.”

As the Hoosiers head into a road contest at No. 18 Wisconsin, facing a talented young signal-caller in Graham Mertz, Wommack hopes playmaking corners like Williams, Tiawan Mullen, and Reese Taylor can take the Badgers’ 65.5-percent passer and reduce him to something less.

But when the Hoosiers take away the ball, Wommack needs them to do more with it.

That ties back to Williams’ interception versus Maryland. After he juked inside of that Terrapin lineman, zipping up the sideline, Williams forgot to switch the hand he was carrying the ball with. Maryland running back Isaiah Jacobs hunted Williams down at midfield, throwing his shoulder into the football.

Out it came.

“I was moving too fast,” Williams said with a sigh. “It’s on me. I think about that play every day. It haunts me every day since then. I gotta make up for it.”

That’s the second week in a row IU had a pick go straight back to the other team. At Ohio State, safety Jamar Johnson’s theft of Fields was coughed up at the Buckeyes’ 16, shifting some momentum away from the Hoosiers in what finished as a close game.

Because of those two fumbled interceptions, Wommack has replaced the defense’s “takeaway circuit” drills at practice — aimed at practicing stripping the ball out — with the offense’s ball-security drills. He’s also considering docking players snaps if takeaways are given back.

“They are big deals,” Wommack said. “Right now, it’s been the lifeblood of our defense, and, in some part, our team, to be able to create takeaways and our offense being able to maximize those takeaways and score touchdowns off them. We can’t afford as we get into the later rounds of this season to give those up.”

The Hoosiers’ defensive production may be needed now more than ever. With quarterback Michael Penix Jr. out for the season, the defense needs to do what it can to both affect opposing quarterbacks but also take pressure off of new IU signal-caller Jack Tuttle.

While the redshirt sophomore Tuttle has yet to start a game, Mertz has three under his belt this season, with varied results. He was superb in a 20-of-21 effort versus Illinois, compiling 248 yards and five touchdowns.

In Wisconsin’s last two games, though, the redshirt freshman Mertz is 35-of-63 (55.5 percent) with three touchdowns. He threw three picks to one score in a 17-7 loss to Northwestern.

If IU can first limit the Badgers’ staple of heavy formation runs, Wommack hopes his defense can turn Mertz into that lesser version of himself.

“Northwestern did some things that confused him and threw him off balance a little bit and that’s kind of been the M.O. of our defense all season long,” Wommack said. “When you can attack a quarterback, whether you are confusing him on the backend, or you are hitting him in the backfield, we have seen it all year long that you don’t have to play necessarily against the same efficiency that you do when the game starts.”

IU can wreak havoc with blitzes, shooting linebackers Micah McFadden and Cam Jones through the “A” gaps, and playing coverage behind it. But even McFadden has the athleticism to participate in the thievery, as he did last week, initially dropping into an intermediate zone, but then bailing deep middle and putting himself in a throwing lane where Tagovailoa didn’t expect him.

“Athletes provide certain schematic liberties,” Wommack said. “I’m able to be a little more creative in the way we do things, both in coverage and in a pressure standpoint, because of the athleticism of our linebacking corps.

“That’s what we’ve been able to do all season long. As the game goes on, we give him a wrinkle here, give him a wrinkle here, make them think, ‘Hey, this is what’s open,’ and then you slam the door shut on ‘em.”

McFadden has two picks on the year, while Mullen has three, and Williams has four. The numbers are eye-popping, but there’s a belief that IU’s athletic defenders can do a little more.

Williams, who was on his way to a long return last Saturday, before losing the ball, wants something specific.

“We’ve yet to take a pick back to the crib, pick-6,” Williams said. “I feel like as a secondary, for me, personally, and I think I’m speaking for the whole secondary, that’s something we want to do.

“Obviously, the last two weeks it hasn’t worked out well for us. We just have to get better at that.”

11 comments

  1. I think IU will have defenses to stop the run. I liked seeing Bohomme on the end of the line getting the safety and think he can help a lot on off tackle plays. IU has the players that when they focus on the run they do a very good job but they will have to prove it against Wisconsin. Coach needs to dial up run blitzes to help stop the run and I am sure he will.

  2. The reason I think Wisky will try to run instead of pass as much if they have success is to avoid IU secondary

    1. I agree t and it will be up to IU defense to stop their run and force them to pass. The game could be a real chess match to see which team adjust the fastest to each offense.

    2. They’re going to try to run because that’s what they’ve been doing for the last 30 years, since Alvarez was hired. Huge linemen, a huge fullback, and a commitment to establishing the run game regardless of the opponent. That doesn’t change because we have a good back four.

      What they will do is use receivers in the jet sweep (see their game against Michigan), and they’ll play-pass you into oblivion if your safeties get caught looking into the backfield. Mertz is very talented but young. NU confused him, and they sent their very good LBs after him often, confusing the protections and making him hurry throws. I guarantee you (hint hint) that KW and the D have watched a lot of that tape.

      They’ll try to run between the tackles, but they’ll also try to make our D run to the boundaries. And they’ll rely much more on their TE to move the chains than most teams do.

  3. The talent level at Wisconsin is more in line with IU’s than that of OSU. IU’s defense continues to be underrated. This thing should look a lot like what the N’western game looked like. Tuttle was calm and effective (and accurate) vs MD.
    I expect the same Saturday. When IU wins, they’ll be moved to #7 or 8 in the championship rankings. They’ll just have to finish the season with a win vs Purdue. The OSU match with MSU I expect, will be closer than people think.

    1. Close to the ball (O and D lines), they have more talented kids, and in greater numbers, and they’re probably better at the second level on D than we are. Otherwise, they play in a system that’s older than any of their players, and that’s a big clue to their success. Hope it’s a good game.

      1. 3rd straight opponent to have a buy week before playing IU and they’ve played 3 fewer games. They are well rested and healthier. It will be an incredible achievement to beat Wisc up there. Can’t wait to watch it play out. Go Hoosiers!!!!

  4. Pretty straight forward. If we stop/contain their run game, we’ve got a good chance to win. If not, it’s likely to be a very long day.

  5. Both teams will commit to stopping the run and will force the quarterbacks to win the game. I like our chances. I think Hendershot has a big game. Caleb Jones being back will definitely help the run game.

  6. It’s their change of pace vs. running between the tackles that worries me the most. IU for the most part will handle their WR passing game. The TE will have to be a Hoosier focus. I really like v’s idea of run blitzes used to keep them off balance. Do believe IU’s D is versatile enough to do the days job.

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