Hoosiers head into 2021 season with increased expectations — and, hopefully, normalcy

In the specifics of how the Hoosier run game functioned in 2020, Indiana coach Tom Allen could point to something much broader than blocking angles and heavy-personnel formations.

Sure, the run game will be a point of emphasis this offseason, given the Hoosiers finished 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. If anything held IU back from making a good offense great, it was probably the 3.1 yards per carry the Hoosiers averaged.

But other things were holding them back, which goes to a larger point.

“You also knew you could show up on Wednesday and lose a guy or two at a certain position and you wouldn’t be able to have a younger guy ready to do those things if he had to do it on game day,” Allen said. “I told our staff, we have to have the mindset to keep this as simple as we can, to where we got three-deep of guys that can execute.”

The realities of playing football during a pandemic — amid daily testing protocols that could strip IU’s lineup of important players on the day of a game — forced Allen and his staff into a unique predicament. Scheme all they want, but if they schemed at a level that would clutter the brain of a third-string player, it could all be useless.

So the Hoosiers went “vanilla” in 2020 with the run game, Allen admits now. That is not to say IU’s opponents weren’t faced with similar choices, trading complexity for consistency, preparing for worst-case scenarios. But as IU moves into the 2021 season, the aforementioned quandary offers a sliver of hope.

The hope is that the 2021 season will be more “normal,” less “vanilla,” and just plain easier to manage. Hopefully, the Hoosiers will get a full offseason with their relatively new strength coach, Aaron Wellman, an offseason that was stolen back in March when the pandemic arrived. Hopefully, IU’s coaches can scheme to their liking, knowing they can plan to the level of their strongest links, not their weakest, with enough practice time to install everything.

Regardless, IU survived a pandemic-altered campaign, finishing 6-2 and knocking off giants of the Big Ten East each week. But the Hoosiers were, like their counterparts, playing with one hand tied behind their back.

“I think that was a reality of what we had to deal with. Everyone else was in the same boat, it was relative,” Allen said, “but I hope it’s something we never have to go through ever again.”

Now the proposition is where the Hoosiers go from here, and there are many questions to be answered. Allen is still searching for a defensive coordinator to replace Kane Wommack, who is now the head coach at South Alabama. This is the second offseason in a row where IU has lost a coordinator. It was also announced Tuesday that running backs coach Mike Hart is heading to Michigan, his alma mater.

Once Allen finds replacements for Wommack and Hart, he will have hired six new assistants over the last year-plus, including Wellman, who replaced performance coaches David Ballou and Matt Rhea. They became national champs at Alabama.

That’s just the price of success. The result of IU’s 14 wins over two years has been staff members earning higher-paying and more prestigious jobs, players earning all-conference and All-America honors, and a program earning heightened expectations. Finishing the year ranked at No. 12 in the Associated Press poll, it’s likely the Hoosiers will be a top-15 team heading into the 2021 season.

But with most of their players returning, and a fuller offseason coming, and more scheming to be done by IU’s coaches, there is hope that the Hoosiers will be more prepared to be the hunted in 2021.

“Sometimes it’s harder to stay there and keep growing than it is to get there. That’s, to me, where you have to have a hungry football team, a hungry set of coaches,” Allen said. “That’s why it excites me to bring in a new defensive coordinator, to put his personality and his identity and his leadership on that side of the football.”

Allen then thought about an incoming group of transfers and freshmen who will arrive midyear. “That excites me, to bring in a new infusion of guys that have that passion,” he continued, “who want to come out here and help us to continue to build this program and do what we believe is the next step, which is to win the Big Ten.”

While that sounds like a lofty goal, the Hoosiers weren’t all that far away in 2020. If they somehow come back on the Buckeyes, making up the final seven-point deficit in a November loss, they are in a position to play Northwestern for the Big Ten title. Then again, the Hoosiers would also need to have avoided the COVID-related pause that came in the final two weeks of the season, which knocked them out for the week of the conference title game.

Again, 2020 was just a weird year. But aside from COVID-19 positives, and a loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, it was a beneficial season for the Hoosiers.

“We did not finish the season the way we wanted to. It’s a big disappointment for myself and an emptiness there that we can’t go back and change,” Allen said. “But I don’t want that one game to take away from all … the huge wins we experienced and the growth in our program, just to show this country what we can become as a football program and show recruits and show their families and our fanbase what I believe Indiana football can be and what we’re becoming in front of your eyes.

“That process, it’s not always a straight incline. There’s detours, there’s bumps, there’s setbacks, there’s things you have to learn from.”

This past season was full of hardships. IU lost players on the day of games due to COVID tests, Allen said. There were multiple times where a player tested positive via an antigen test during the week, missed a practice, and a confirmatory PCR test came back negative. That player ended up suiting up on a Saturday, but they were down in practice time.

The pandemic continues, so everything isn’t quite back to normal. But the challenges Allen now confronts — like hiring the right people for defensive coordinator and running backs coach — almost seem quaint. Allen has options, because that coordinator need not coach linebackers, as Wommack did. Allen believes he has enough versatility on his staff to hire a defensive coordinator with another position specialty, if need be.

Then, once his staff is complete again, including that new running backs coach, Allen can sit down and start planning for the 2021 season, especially how to diversify the Hoosiers’ running attack, whether it be formations, blocking angles, what have you. There will be a use for such scheming again.

“We’re going to have an extensive study of that this offseason,” Allen said, “and that’s going to be a huge objective for our offensive staff and our program, to run the football better.”

12 comments

  1. After all said and done IU football in Tom Allen era a realistic success (and this would be a significantly big success) IU football would have a record of:
    *1 game above 500 winning record in big ten including both, east and west.
    *66 and 2/3% winning record in
    non conference games excluding bowl games.
    *1 game above 500 winning
    record in bowl games (T.A. is already down in bowl games and has much catching up to do). That’s as good as it gets for IU football.
    Is anyone willing to take over and under bets?

  2. I will take the over t as I think this IUFB program is different from the past. Yes it will be tough to have another season like this last one but our players now KNOW they can beat the better teams in the B1G along with having the talent to just that. Coach Allen has the chance to hire new coaches that can energize IUFB for the up coming year as they head into a tough schedule once again.

    The good news is IU has much of last season’s team back and has players to replace the ones leaving. As long as the team takes the same approach to the season and pulls together to make this season as special as 2020 regular season was.

  3. Momentum is a strange cat….Right when you think you’ve caught the genie in the bottle, it is gone.

    Last year may have just been the ‘Season That Could Have Been’…..One more victory in Columbus and maybe we’re playing in college football championships?

    A season gifted by empty stadiums where massive crowds don’t influence the home team. A season of pandemic and cancelled contests leaving us standing with the most victories.

    Was it really momentum….or was it just a gift? We will soon find out. It could end up being the thread we came , oh, so very close, to ‘shocking the world.’ One victory in Columbus and we would have had something in 100 years to hang our hat. Momentum is a strange cat.

    The genie may be out of the bottle. The bags are packed as the clouds return to build above Memorial. A sullen history given its brief ray of sunshine while the world was in the full grip of illness and a pandemic. The oddity that is IU Football.

  4. I am talking about the total T.A. era. (maybe 15 to 20 years give or take) there may or not be a big ten championship game/s and may be a win or not in big ten championship game. Why not be optimistic. It’s more fun.

  5. We would all love to see IU FB’s growth be linear, but as TA stated, it usually doesn’t happen like that. We have to admit that playing PSU and MI at home, and WI in an empty stadium was to IU’s advantage in 2020. Assuming people are allowed to fill college FB stadium in 2021, I’d be happy if IU produced another winning season (8 – 4 or better), beat one of the big boys again (I prefer MI or OSU), beat Purdue (again), goes to a bowl game and wins that bowl game, finishing the season at 9 – 4. I think, realistically, winning a significant bowl game is the next step in IU’s progression. That would enhance IU’s recruiting momentum, and after three consecutive winning seasons, establish IU as a solid FB program. To expect IU to do more than that in 2021 is unrealistic and sets the IU fan base up for disappointment. “Everything is relative to expectations.”

    IU FB is still limited by one of the lowest budgets in the Big Ten. We’re millions of dollars a year behind where we need to be in order to compete for Big Ten Championships. LOE is wonderful and real, but cash is king. No matter how he spins it, TA can’t afford to keep losing coordinators and key assistant coaches every year and expect to maintain the program’s trajectory. It makes recruiting much more difficult.

  6. The keynote is regardless of the situations the Coroni has hatched the IUFB players had to execute positively to win the games. That’s the most important factor moving forward. Coach Allen will keep that refrain ringing in their ears every minute they don’t put out 1000%.

  7. 2020 will be an anomaly until 2021 either confirms it was legitimate or demonstrates that it was a result more of perfectly favorable circumstances, for all of the reasons most people can appreciate. No need to be embarrassed by our great results in 2020, but 2021 will provide a much clearer view of where we really are.

    1. I agree that 2021 will be the season to show where IUFB really stands in the B1G. 2020 did show IU has the mental toughness other teams seem to be missing in this season. Have a great 2021 season Hoosiers and people will really believe in you.

  8. IMO, a lot of how successful IU will be in 2021 depends on Penix being back to full speed. I’m encouraged that IU will have an improved running game, which will make it harder for defenses to prepare for Penix, but Penix being healthy is the key.

  9. The main things that have evolved regarding Tom Allen, at least in my limited viewpoint is that he’s shrewd, focused and determined. The ‘ship’ appears to be in good hands. And yes, Dolson needs to do everything he can to make sure financial compensation is relative to the competition to encourage, if not ensure, continuity. As a ‘side predictor’..I have a hunch that the running game from here on out will become a viable strength,..with or without current coordinators. Allen knows that if you cannot run the ball and stop the run (which has already been accomplished) a game cannot be controlled. I would be surprised if Sheridan and Hiller aren’t also looking before kickoff next September. The B1G isn’t a stop to ‘ be learning your craft’, regardless of the institution.

    1. Know theAllen and the coaches weren’t happy with either the O or D run game / stopping the run this year, feeling like we dropped off on both sides. It was always going to be an issue on offense, but they were surprised that the D against the run wasn’t better.

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