Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We will assess a team a day in each division, starting today with the Indiana Hoosiers.
Moving the ball hasn’t been a problem during Kevin Wilson’s five years at Indiana, but grabbing headlines with that great offense has been another matter.
Living in the tough Big Ten East, it’s wins that matter and they’ve been hard to come by in Bloomington. Wilson hasn’t had a winning season yet in five years, but there was at least progress a year ago, winning six games and making it to a bowl game for only the second time in 12 years and first since 2007.
Indiana did it with the only Big Ten offense to average more than 500 yards per game. They did it by finishing first in passing and second in rushing, and they could gash you any way they’d like. They won six games, their first four (Southern Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky and Wake Forest) and their last two (Maryland and Purdue), but lost six straight in between when injuries, bad luck and a few bad breaks caught up with them.
Still, during the losing streak, they scared the heck out of Michigan and Ohio State, nearly winning tight games with both Big Ten powers. They gave away a game to Rutgers and lost by only eight to Iowa, a team that was in the midst of a 12-game winning streak.
They did it all behind quarterback Nate Sudfeld, but he’s gone now. So is top runner Jordan Howard, both off to play in the NFL. Those kinds of losses usually spell disaster for an offense, but the Hoosiers return plenty of talent, especially along the offensive line, at wide receiver and at running back.
A quarterback battle awaits this fall, which will go a long way in determining if this offense can remain the league’s best. It’s a definite possibility.
Here’s what you need to know about Indiana’s offense:
Indiana by the numbers
Total yards per game: 504.3 (1st in Big Ten/No. 14 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 210.5 (2nd in Big Ten/No. 26 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 293.8 (1st in Big Ten/No. 22 nationally)
Key players lost: RB Jordan Howard, OT Jason Spriggs.
Key returning players: RB Devine Redding, OG Dan Feeney.
The skinny: Replacing Sudfeld at QB is a huge challenge, because he made this offense go for the past three-plus years. With a new quarterback in the mix, IU might become more reliant on the running game than they have in the past, and, if that’s the case, Redding is more than ready to carry the load.
Redding turned into a star late in the season after Howard got hurt. He gained 1,012 yards and finished strong with 130 yards against Maryland, 144 against Purdue and 227 in the Pinstripe Bowl loss to Duke.
It’s going to be interesting to see how many yards Redding can gain over a full season, provided he can stay healthy, of course. He has the benefit of running behind what might be the Big Ten’s best line, one that includes four fifth-year seniors headlined by returning All-American Dan Feeney. Spriggs is a big loss, but the Hoosiers have plenty of depth to replace him.
Key players lost: QB Nate Sudfeld.
Key returning players: WR Simmie Cobbs, WR Ricky Jones, WR Mitchell Paige.
The skinny: First the good news: This receiving corps is loaded with experience. All three — Cobbs, Jones, Paige — caught more than 50 balls last year, and they’ll line up all over the field. In Indiana’s fast-paced offense, it’s been hard for defenses to cover them all. That will certainly be true in 2016.
Next, the bad news, or at least the unknown. Losing Sudfeld is big. In three-plus years, he threw for 7,879 yards, including 3,573 yards and 27 TDs a year ago. He got Indiana back to a bowl game. Now the baton gets passed, most likely to 6-foot-6 junior college transfer Richard Lagow, though 2015 backup Zander Diamont still wants to have a say in the race.
Lagow looks the part because of his size but mum’s been the word so far in fall camp as to who’s leading. The first availability for offensive players last week came and went with none of the QBs being available. It might go right up to game-time (Sept. 1 at Florida International) before there’s an answer. Whoever wins will have plenty of talented skill players to utilize. The guess is that it will be Lagow.
One stat that must improve
Best offense in the league and top 14 nationally doesn’t equate one bit to this shocking stat: IU was 80th in the country (out of 127 teams) in third-down conversion percentage.
There were far too many times, especially late in games when the Hoosiers could have closed teams out, where they would repeatedly bog down on third down and let teams get back into games. That clearly needs to change in 2016.
“No disrespect to Griffin Oakes, he’s a great kicker and he deserved to be all-conference,” Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said. “But he had such a great year because we gave him far too many opportunities to kick when we should have been scoring touchdowns.”
There’s no doubt that the biggest concern is trying to replicate what Sudfeld brought to the table at QB. Indiana fans have seen enough of Diamond to know that he’s fun and dynamic, but he’s small (6-foot-1, 174 pounds) and probably not capable of winning week after week in the Big Ten.
Lagow has the tools to be something special and, if he wins the QB job, he’ll have to prove quickly that he can drive this offense. Those three non-conference games against Florida International, Ball State and Wake Forest are going to be critical to get the offense humming.
Better or worse in 2016?
WORSE: But not by much. If Redding stays healthy, he can clearly go for 1,500 yards or more rushing. There are talented skill players galore out wide, and even the tight ends are underrated. Wilson and his offensive coaches have proven they know what they are doing on that side of the ball, but to think about 500 yards a game again and No. 1 in the Big Ten might be asking too much.