IU defense looking for complete effort at Rutgers

After the final touchdown was scored, and Indiana’s loss to Michigan State last week was all but over, Jonathan Crawford stood in the end zone a defeated man.

That 75-yard jet sweep touchdown run by Spartans receiver Jalen Nailor never should have happened, Crawford thought in the moment, another mistake on a night where IU’s defense otherwise demonstrated its potential to play beyond its youth.

“Honestly, I had just been in that situation so many times,” the senior safety said. “It’s really frustrating for me.”

It’s an understandable sentiment from Crawford, especially in the midst of a loss that stifled the Hoosiers’ latest opportunity to earn a meaningful victory. While the first defeat of the season left Indiana annoyed in the moment, the Hoosiers can point to the trends of growth and development that have surfaced within their youthful defense across the first four weeks.

Yes, there were breakdowns and missed assignments against the Spartans, critical ones at that. But there were big plays and moments of encouragement, too. Enough to give the Hoosiers a sense that they’re not far off track.

“Our young defense is growing,” IU coach Tom Allen said.

This week, against a Rutgers program falling deeper and deeper into the Big Ten cellar, Indiana has a chance to follow up with a more complete effort. That’s what the Hoosiers produced in last year’s matchup, holding the Scarlet Knights to merely 190 total yards and 3.3 yards per play in a 41-0 victory that marked the program’s first Big Ten shutout since 1993.

The first month of the season has seen the Hoosiers’ defense produce gradual improvements, seizing takeaways and developing a more noticeable pass rush as the weeks have passed.

After replacing eight starters from last year’s defense, IU is tied for first in the Big Ten with nine takeaways, with 31 points scored off those errors. Indiana is also seventh in the Big Ten in total defense (329.5 yards per game) and ranks 19th nationally in the S&P defensive ratings. IU’s pass defense, meanwhile, is ranked second in the league at 156.3 yards allowed per game.

Those are all encouraging results from the first four weeks, though Allen and the Hoosiers were particularly displeased with IU’s inability to finish off possessions at the end of both halves against the Spartans.

That included Nailor’s touchdown, and Michigan State’s 74-yard scoring drive at the end of the second quarter.

For Indiana, playing a complete game is the next step. This week, IU digested its loss to the Spartans by recognizing its play was good, but ultimately not good enough.

“You point out the good things, but you’ve got to point out the bad things, too,” defensive line coach Mark Hagen said. “For us, at least on defense, it was (about) execution.”

Yet, for the most part, IU executed effectively up front. Indiana kept Michigan State’s running game from gaining traction, while also pressuring the Spartans in their own backfield

Indiana posted three sacks for the second consecutive week after recording a mere total of two through the first two games. Finding a reliable pass rush has been a gradual process for the Hoosiers, but one that is beginning to reward IU for its patience.

“I always tell our guys that a pass rush is want-to and technique,” Allen said. “It just takes tremendous grit and toughness, because you’ve got to rush and rush and rush and rush and sometimes you get there, most of the time you don’t.”

Credit defensive end Nile Sykes for finishing a first-half sack despite both being held and playing with a broken hand. Sykes played through the hold, eventually freeing himself and bringing Lewerke down for a loss of 19 yards late in the first quarter.

“I was just running, executing the call we were playing,” Sykes said. “I was just fortunate enough to beat the tackle and get back there and finish the play.”

Not only were the sacks heartening, but the nine tackles for loss posted against the Spartans seemed to give Indiana’s defense, especially those up front, a jolt in confidence coming off the loss.

IU’s young players also seemed to gain a foundational understanding of what lining up against a Big Ten opponent will feel like across the weeks to come.

“You can’t take away from the fact that we’re really young. That’s the bottom line,” Allen said. “I had our guys raise their hands on Monday. ‘(For) how many guys was that your first Big Ten game?’ A chunk of our team raised their hands. Lots of young guys. No doubt, they’re different from the first three opponents we played.

“… On the flip side of it, your young guys on defense, they walked away thinking, ‘Wow, I can do this. We just played a really good offense and some big ol’ boys up front. We held our own and did some really good things.’ A lot of those guys gained confidence.”

The next step is turning that confidence and early production into a more complete performance. That’s the expectation against a Rutgers team that simply hasn’t had the offensive playmakers to find success this month.

No matter the opponent, IU wants to build off its positive momentum and continue to grow a defense capable of playing up to Allen’s high standard.

“We’ve made our corrections,” Hagen said. “Now the focus is going out and being better this weekend when we go over and play Rutgers.”