Can Indiana Football Get To Eight Wins?

The Indiana football team made a noble run at upsetting #2 Ohio State last night in Bloomington. The Hoosiers outplayed the Buckeyes in the first half and led 21-20 into the third quarter. Raw talent took over and the final ended up 49-21. That leaves Indiana to ask the question of how good they can expect to be in 2017 for first-year head coach Tom Allen.

“Breakthrough” was the operative word running through the Indiana program when they spoke to the ESPN crew. The Hoosier players and coaches meant it in the context of pulling off one of these big upsets—they’ve been close before, from games against Ohio State to Michigan in recent seasons, but never closed the deal.

I think whether or not Indiana can pull one isolated upset against these two teams or Penn State is really not the question. The question the Hoosiers should be asking is whether they can jump up to the eight-win level. That question turns the focus to games like the one at Virginia next weekend or the back-to-back road games against Michigan State and Maryland in October. Last night’s game gave mixed signals in that regard.

The biggest positive for Indiana is Simi Cobbs at receiver. The box score tells you he caught 11 passes for 149 yards and that’s impressive enough on its face. Watching live told you just how big, physical and athletic he is. The fact Indiana couldn’t block Ohio State’s defensive front or give quarterback Richard Lagow more than two seconds to get rid of the ball didn’t matter—just loft a jump ball to Cobbs and let him go get it.

If wide receivers from mid-level conference teams could get a fair shake for Big Ten MVP, Cobbs would have made a significant case for himself last night. He was singlehandedly responsible for the offense in helping his team get the lead in the third quarter.

But that’s also the problem. Cobbs might be able to carry this team to wins over Purdue and Rutgers and perhaps Illinois, but an offense has to be more than lobbing quick jump balls to a receiver. The protection for Lagow completely collapsed if he held the ball for more than two seconds and the running game was non-existent, with 17 yards on 27 carries.

This really wasn’t a fair test for the Indiana offensive line though. The Ohio State defensive front is easily the best they will see all year. If the Hoosiers can block better and broaden their play-calling options against Virginia, they’ll be a better team and far more difficult to beat.

Defensively, the 49 points allowed are deceptive. Indiana consistently won battles in the trenches throughout the first half and forced Ohio State to get a little more creative with their blocking schemes. Most opponents aren’t going to have the Buckeyes’ big-play explosiveness, and the improvement of the Hoosier defense over the last couple years is one of the more significant developments in the Big Ten.

Indiana hasn’t been at the eight-win level since Bill Mallory had them there in the early 1990s. This team has a real shot to get there and that makes the trip to Virginia next weekend more important than the higher-profile game last night.