Hoosiers will be all about the ball vs. Spartans

Two weeks ago, Tom Allen took a deep dive into this season’s film archive.

The Indiana coach studied the first five games of the Hoosiers’ season, identifying each opportunity his defense had to seize a takeaway. By the end of his study, the Allen found 30 chances where the Hoosiers could have — or should have — stolen the ball from the opposing offense.

In reality, Indiana came up with only four — three interceptions and a fumble recovery.

Last week against Michigan, during another near-upset of a ranked opponent, the Hoosiers had three more opportunities for takeaways. One was reversed on a controversial pass interference call and two other near picks were simply not caught.

Now, entering Saturday’s 3:30 game at No. 18 Michigan State, Indiana defenders are eager to finally follow through and create the takeaways they’ve been searching for.

“We’re going to get it right,” Allen said.

Takeaways are a central tenet of Allen’s coaching philosophy. When he first arrived as IU defensive coordinator in 2016, he demanded that no one inside Indiana’s program use the word “turnover.” To Allen, that was the “T-word.” He didn’t like it. It wasn’t strong enough.

Allen prefers the word “takeaway” because it invokes aggression. During his first year and a half with the Hoosiers, Allen’s defenses have, indeed, played aggressive football.

Right now, however, they’re coming up empty handed in one key area.

Indiana is last in the Big Ten and ranked No. 125 nationally in turnover margin at minus-nine, meaning the Hoosiers’s offense has turned the ball over 13 times, while their defense has seized only four takeaways.

It’s in stark contrast to where IU’s defense was last season, when it picked up six takeaways in the first six quarters of the season.

The Hoosiers’ last takeaway was an interception by Jonathan Crawford in the second quarter at Penn State on Sept. 30.

Takeaway drills are a major component of Allen’s daily practice schedule. This week, those drills were highlighted even more so.

Defensive back Tony Fields said that Tuesday’s practice, for instance, was geared specifically toward emphasizing takeaways.

“Taking the ball away, stripping the ball away, interceptions, it comes down to your technique and just trusting your responsibilities,” Fields said. “When you see something, you attack. We just have to get back into those habits that we were in. We focus on that every day. We talk about it all the time, so I expect that to change.”

To some degree, Marcus Oliver’s presence is missed within Indiana’s defense. Although senior Chris Covington has played well in his absence, the Hoosiers miss Oliver’s penchant for stripping the ball. The former IU linebacker, who declared for the NFL draft after his junior season, is IU’s all-time leader with 12 forced fumbles.

As the Hoosiers try to create more opportunities to steal the ball, they’ll be trying to channel some of Oliver’s best qualities — particularly his knack for getting takeaways.

“That’s a certain guy you can go back and look at and say, ‘Hey, how did he attack running backs when you go to tackle them?'” Fields said. “He was definitely great and we’ll be looking at that.”

Of Michigan State’s 11 turnovers in six games, eight have been fumbles.

The Spartans have spent the past couple weeks focusing on their running game. That objective, combined with the rain showers that have met Michigan State in those games at Michigan and at Minnesota, have prevented sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke from fully opening the passing attack.

So Michigan State’s passing game is still very much a work in progress under Lewerke.

This week, the Hoosiers hope to keep him off track, while seizing the takeaway opportunities that have so far been squandered.

“Getting those is going to always be (emphasized),” Allen said. “… We worked on it again this week. We’re not going to stop. So we just (need to) find different ways to do it and keep working.”