Best in the B1G is o-line’s goal

In the days following an opening win against Ball State, the Indiana offensive line wasn’t in a celebratory mood.

“We were angry all week at practice,” senior offensive guard Simon Stepaniak said. “In a good way. In a positive, building way.”

“Controlled aggression” is something offensive line coach Darren Hiller preaches, and the Hoosiers had reason to be seething — in a constructive, focused manner. Ball State was one of the lesser rush defenses in the country in 2018. IU’s top rusher, Stevie Scott, found only 2.5 yards per carry in the Hoosiers’ 2019 debut. That is well short of the standard Stepaniak and his fellow blockers want to set.

They don’t just want to push around the Cardinals, or Eastern Illinois, which they had more success with in Week 2. IU wants to have the best line in the Big Ten.

That may sound like a cliched goal on the surface, but it has some history behind it.

Programs like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio State traditionally have future pros along their front line, but since Stepaniak has been a Hoosier, he has watched guards like Dan Feeney and Wes Martin push around Big Ten defenders on their way to the NFL, following in the footsteps of tackles Jason Spriggs and Rodger Saffold.

The Hoosiers have had some of the best in years past, so this group doesn’t want to be responsible for a drop-off. Stepaniak, as well as seniors Coy Cronk (left tackle) and Hunter Littlejohn (center), weren’t going to be satisfied by a measly 2.5 yards per rush for Scott.

They were mad.

“I think that showed, we were very physical this past game,” Stepaniak said. “We just need to keep building on top of that because playing in the Big Ten, you have to be the best, most physical unit on the field.”

Stepaniak and Littlejohn, in particular, know what a cohesive, dominant line looks like.

They were redshirts when the All-American duo of Spriggs and Feeney paved the way for two 1,000-yard rushers, Jordan Howard and Devine Redding. Cronk was a senior in high school that year.

“It was one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Cronk said. “We saw the success they had, a lot of rushing yards and that sort of stuff. So we want to replicate that. If you want to be a great team, you have to have a great offensive line, so we take pride in that.”

Their performance in Week 1 didn’t do anything to quell preseason concerns about the Hoosiers’ front, however. Cronk, Stepaniak, and Littlejohn have starting experience, but they need to mesh with junior Harry Crider (left guard) and redshirt sophomore Caleb Jones (right tackle). There isn’t much depth behind the starting five, either.

IU’s blockers did take a step forward versus EIU, helping Scott pick up an average of 5.1 yards per rush in a little over a half. The Hoosiers’ average dipped to 3.4 when backups entered in the second half of a 52-0 blowout.

IU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer feels like the front five has come a long way, as far as communication and each person knowing where the other is moving. Still, there is room for the offensive line to grow, especially with No. 6 Ohio State coming to Bloomington this weekend.

“I think we improved,” DeBoer said of his line versus EIU. “Are we where we want to be? No, I think we need to run the football better.

“I know they are up for the challenge. We have three seniors up there that want it to be great. They want the offensive line to be the pride of the football team — not just the offense, the pride of the football team. Their work ethic and the talent we have there, I know they can do that.”

One big positive has been the Hoosiers’ pass protection. They haven’t allowed a sack in two games. UAB and Utah are the only other programs with a clean sheet through two weeks. IU’s blockers take a lot of pride in keeping redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. upright.

At the same time, they haven’t faced a team like OSU, or an edge rusher like junior Chase Young. The Buckeyes have nine sacks, tied for fifth-most in the country. Young has three.

“Kid’s an incredible talent. We have to do a lot to slow him down,” Cronk said. “It’s on us to try and keep him off the quarterback. But with that type of guy, you have to throw different looks, throw curveballs, try to get his eyes dirty.

“He’s a special talent, but it’s on us to stop him.”

IU will be leaning on its offensive line in more ways than one. The three seniors have played against OSU before. They know what this game is all about.

Stepaniak and Littlejohn are from Ohio.

“So to me that’s just that whole mindset that you bring as a senior leader to our program, and how you prepare, and what the game means,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “You lean on those guys this week, for sure, especially early in the season when (we) got a lot of young guys, there are going to be several guys, first time playing against Ohio State.”

For Stepaniak, this isn’t his first go-round with OSU, but it is his last. And that’s a big deal.

Growing up a half-hour outside of Cincinnati, Stepaniak was a Bearcat fan, but the Buckeyes still had a place in his household. His family watched Ohio State football every week. His uncle, Taylor Barnes, was a pitcher for the Buckeye baseball team.

Those roots linger.

“Oh yeah, a little inside motivation,” Stepaniak said. “I want to beat these guys.”

And it all starts in the trenches.

The group that wants to be the best in the Big Ten wants the same for their entire team.

“Every year our goal is to beat everyone in the league,” Stepaniak said. “I didn’t even know what the spread is for this game. We’re not going to buy into Vegas and be like ‘These guys think we are going to win by this much.’

“Going into this game, it’s the next biggest game of the year, because it’s the next game.”

8 comments

  1. Couple of notable pieces of football news you may already know. T. Boone Pickens petroleum/energy magnate died today at 91. He was an Oklahoma State alumnus. He donated over a 1/2 billion $ to the Cowboy FB program over the decades. $165 million in 1 chunk.
    The other is all about PUke and their FB misfortunes. QB Sindelar is in concussion protocol. Their best defensive player LB Bailey and IIRC team captain is out for the season with injured knee. That is a big loss for them.

  2. I believe it was more like $265 million to OSU’s Athletic department, which was only 26% of his total donations to the University. Most of Pickens’ donations were invested in funds that have grown in value so that they will pay for various priorities, including the Athletic Department, for many decades into the future.

    Since you can’t take it with you, you might as well donate money to great causes and the things you love.

    1. It’s widely known the single largest donation ever made to an academic institution athletic dept. was $165m given by TBP to Oklahoma State to renovate the FB stadium. Which upon completion they renamed after him.

  3. Sorry to go off topic, but the IU OL is going to be facing their biggest challenge to date. They dominated EIU which was no surprise. They didn’t dominate against BSU which was also a surprise. If they get dominated by OSU’s DL a similar outcome can be expected as the previous 24 games.

  4. It is good IU’s OL has this goal but they have a ways to go in the run game to become the best. I hope they do develop into one of the best but it takes performance to get to that level. They have been good in pass pro but will be challenged this week to keep their on sack games going.

  5. Yes, PU HAS a couple issues with qb concussion protocol and LB injury.
    So, it didn’t take long for IU to join in with its own qb Penix issue.

  6. Copied from Wikipedia:
    “Pickens’ gift remains the largest donation to a university’s athletic program in collegiate history. His total contributions to OSU came to over $1 billion. Over $265 million, or 26.5%, of his donations were towards athletics. ………”

    On December 30, 2005, Pickens made a $165 million gift to Oklahoma State University. The New York Times reported that “the money spent less than an hour on December 30 in the account of the university’s charity, O.S.U. Cowboy Golf Inc., before it was invested in a hedge fund controlled by Pickens, BP Capital Management.”[40] Pickens, who was on the board of the O.S.U. Cowboy Golf, waived any management fees for the OSU monies.[41] All profits of the fund go to enlarging the OSU gift. The gift is intended to help fund an upgrade of the football stadium and construction of an athletic village, ……..”

    1. Correct, just as I stated $165m being the largest single donation to a university athletic department as the NCAA has ever documented. I did not need Wikipedia. I’ve followed T. Boone closely for over 40 years. OSU Cowboy Golf, very creative perpetual funding for OSU amateur athletics.

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