Shifting OL faces a stiff test at No. 25 MSU

With the loquacious Coy Cronk at tackle and the more introverted Harry Crider at guard, communication along the left side of Indiana’s offensive line was somewhat one-sided.

“Coy did all the talking,” IU line coach Darren Hiller said. “Harry did a lot of smiling.”

Cronk and Crider were making it work. Between them, blitzers were being identified in pass protection. Defenders were counted and alignments noted as the pair worked their run blocks. The fourth-year starter at tackle was helping his first-year counterpart along, building a chemistry week by week.

There is a lot more to offensive line play than size and strength, and Cronk’s mind may be the foremost thing the Hoosiers lost with his season-ending ankle injury versus UConn. He was the talker on the left side.

Now, it’s a case of “next man up,” which Hiller saw play out during the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s game. Freshman tackle Matthew Bedford was inserted next to Crider, and Hiller saw the junior’s head turning to the left.

“Harry’s no dummy, he knows,” Hiller said. “We had talked about it on the sideline before the series started. I said, ‘Hey, Matt is going in, make sure you are talking to him out there.’”

The loss of Cronk was a tough pill to swallow, but there wasn’t time to wash it down during the game. Cronk’s immediate response was to minimize the injury, telling head coach Tom Allen it was “too far from my heart to kill me” before he was taken off the field in a cart. Hiller heard it secondhand, but, supposedly, Cronk also said, “Good thing I’m not a horse. They’d have to put a bullet in me.”

The shock may have worn off in the next 24 hours, because Hiller talked to a much more subdued Cronk on Sunday. He loves to play football, and he’s done for the season. It’s a painful reality. But for the rest of the Hoosier offensive line, they can’t wallow in self-pity.

Cronk hasn’t.

“It was actually pretty incredible how he handled it,” senior center Hunter Littlejohn said. “Just to see that strength from him made us all strong. Now it’s on the four of us who have been playing, whoever the fifth guy ends up being now, we got to get him ready to go because the meat of our schedule is coming up.”

Whether it’s Bedford or fifth-year senior DaVondre Love manning the open tackle spot, the entire line will have a steep challenge versus Michigan State’s defensive line. Kenny Willekes, a senior defensive end, was the Big Ten’s d-lineman of the year in 2018. Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams each came into the year with 29 consecutive starts on the interior. Mike’s younger brother, Jacub, starts at the other end.

That’s the front line of a defense that’s allowing 52 rushing yards per contest, second only to Wisconsin’s minuscule 27 yards per contest in the Big Ten.

There is no ideal time to replace a left tackle with 40 career starts, especially a team captain that’s a vocal and emotional center for a football team. But facing the No. 25 Spartans, on the road, is far from fortunate timing.

“So you can look at it one of two ways: You can say does that concern you, or does that excite you?” Allen said. “And to me, it excites me, the opportunity that it’s going to present for somebody to step up and grow, because you really find out a lot about somebody during these opportunities.

“Whoever does will have a great opportunity to be able to be tested against a tough environment, against a very high-level defense.”

IU’s top two options come with clear differences.

Bedford, a 6-foot-6, 307-pound specimen from Cordova, Tenn., seems to have the most upside, but he hadn’t played in a game until last week’s fourth quarter. It’s taken time for his mind to absorb all the intricacies of blitz schemes and line calls at the Division I level. He also tends to get down on himself after he makes a mistake.

Love, on the other hand, knows the playbook inside and out. He just stands an inch taller than Bedford and 15 pounds lighter. Limitations strength-wise have held him back.

“When you’re filling the shoes of Coy Cronk, it’s like, OK, who is the next guy?” Hiller said. “Well, right now we are trying to figure that out. We have an idea of who that is and all that, but both of those guys are going to have to play.”

Hiller turned to Love first against UConn, placing him at right tackle and flipping redshirt sophomore Caleb Jones to the left side. The line carried on well versus a less-than-stellar defensive front, helping the Hoosiers’ rushers pick up 178 yards (4.4 per carry).

But the Hoosiers can’t assume all is well, because one performance isn’t a trend. IU gained an average of 2 yards per carry versus Ball State and Ohio State. Depth along the line was a concern in the preseason, and that worry resurfaced after Cronk went down.

Hiller’s looking for solutions. Along with Love and Bedford, redshirt freshman tackle Aidan Rafferty could also see the field. Hiller is experimenting with right guard Simon Stepaniak at right tackle, as well, developing yet another backup plan at the position.

The Hoosiers’ simplest solution may be Bedford on the left side. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, because Cronk and Crider both played as freshmen. Right now, Bedford just isn’t processing as quickly as the teenage versions of Crider and Cronk, which slows him on the field.

“Those guys are probably the exception,” Hiller said. “Most guys, they get the playbook, they understand the play, and they can draw it up on the board … and all of a sudden, when you are on the football field and things are moving at 100 miles per hour, and it’s going from first-and-10 to second-and-6 or whatever the down and distance, and they have to put all the ingredients into the bowl of gumbo … it’s not simply ‘Run this play.’ It’s down-and-distance things. … Defenses are going to do different things on different down and distances.

“It doesn’t just come natural to those guys.”

A period of adjustment is inevitable, as inconvenient as it may be as the Hoosiers head into the rest of their Big Ten slate, searching for three wins and bowl eligibility.

But they are going to support one another. Crider, who was leaning on Cronk, will have to offer his voice to Bedford. Hiller’s task will be keeping the young tackle feeling confident, alleviating Bedford’s habit of holding onto mistakes for three or four plays.

Cronk, once he’s had surgery, will be around to add his thoughts in the film room. In that way, he’ll fit well with the Hoosiers’ new plan.

“He’ll be another set of eyes for me. He can coach,” Hiller said. “He already does it. So he can continue to do what he does.”

4 comments

  1. I’ve read on the other site (Rivals) that some are of the belief that the IU running game is going to run roughshod over the MSU defense. That same offense that barely was able to garner 2 yards per carry against BSU.

    With Cronk out for the season the OL will not magically transform into a dominant force against one of the best run defenses.

    If IU rushes for more than 75 yards I will be thrilled.

  2. Pre season: I do remember they were experimenting with moving people around on OL in different positions which I stated at the time for situations such as what IU OL now finds themselves in.

  3. I would go with Bedford and let him learn as he plays, Love has issues more than strength as he isn’t very athletic and gets beat often. I worried about IU’s OL against MSU but now think it is an even bigger task without Cronk. I expect to see lot of passing by the Hoosiers but with many variations. I would love to see two RBs in the game with one running a route and attacking MSU’s defense once you see their adjustment. It would also create some misdirection in the running game with two RBs.

  4. DeBoer rarely runs any two back sets, so that’s highly unlikely and really wouldn’t work well against a defense like MSU’s. What you’re likely to see are bubble screens and quick throws to the perimeter to make MSU play to the boundary and, hopefully, open up the middle of the D. It will also give IU the chance to neutralize MSU’s D line, which is their strength, and relieve some pressure on the O line, which was a weak spot even before Cronk got hurt. IU can’t “out athlete” MSU, so the strategy will be to get players in space and hope MSU lb’s and db’s can’t break down and make tackles. I’d be surprised if Penix can go for the entire game, if any, so IU will need to possess the ball and keep the IU D off the field, since explosion plays will be at a minimum. If they can do that and not turn it over, they can take the game into the second half. Unfortunately, they’re at a talent and coaching disadvantage, since Dantonio is so good, so they’ll need some breaks to stay close.

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