It used to be that you could count on Indiana being a one-trick pony, with a potent offense and a defense somewhere between Bo Pelini meets Melvin Gordon and John Papuchis meets Baylor’s bowl game single wing offense. Now, however, the Hoosiers have stepped up their defense in 2016, though by no means are they an elite unit yet. 49th in total defense and 51st in scoring defense. The good news is that while their passing defense has been solid, at 73rd in the country their run defense still tilts toward poor.
Let’s take a look at what has changed for Indiana in 2016 and why the Huskers’ offense can’t sleep on them in this game.
The Hoosiers Defense
Base Scheme and Complementary Concepts
After the aforementioned defensive issues early in Kevin Wilson’s tenure, Wilson shoved his old defensive coordinator out the door and hired Tom Allen away from South Florida. With that move, Allen brought in a 4-2-5 defense to counter the growing influence of the Spread offense in the Big 10. This 4-2-5, along with upgraded personnel, is the main reason why Indiana’s defense has seen an uptick this year. And though they base out of this with 3 safeties on the field at all time, one of them is true freshman wrecking ball Marcelino Ball, who goes a stout 6’/215lbs and plays more like a hybrid linebacker/safety at the “Husky” position.
With the three safeties, they’re primarily a 2-high team that will split the field in terms of coverage schemes. One of the things that will immediately stick out to Huskers fans is the Hoosiers run a high risk/high reward defense by trying to take away easy throws on RPOs and other quick game concepts.
They accomplish this with two primary methods. First, they’re not afraid to press their corners both out wide and over the slot to take away the hitch and bubble screen game. While it forces offenses to take shots down the field, it has resulted in the Indiana defense giving up explosive plays down the field. It also makes them susceptible to pick plays when both corners are pressed.
The second method they use to suffocate the short throws and RPOs is to drop a safety late to cut the #1 WR to the Boundary. They’ll do it from Cover 3 looks and they’ll also do it from Cover 2 as well by inverting the safety’s and cornerback’s responsibilities. Again, though, it leaves them open for deep shots to WRs.
The Hoosiers will also mix in Cover 1 and Cover 3, though they most often line up 2 High with their safeties and then rotate into it. They’ll use their corners as Cloud defenders in Cover 3, again looking to take away short throws to the outside. They’ll also flip their safeties and corners when faced with a Nub formation, where the tight end is the last man on the line of scrimmage to one side of the formation.
Another aspect of the Hoosiers’ high risk/high reward offense is that they frequently blitz, both on running and passing downs, and they’ll mix in a fair amount of stunts and twists with them as well. They’ll bring DBs off the Boundary on 5-man blitzes, and they’ll also heat it up with 6-man blitzes with 3 Deep/2 Under coverage behind it on passing downs. This game will definitely test both Coach Cavanaugh’s offensive line and the backs in pass protection, as Indiana will blitz both near the line of scrimmage and from depth in the secondary.
As indicated by their defensive ranking, though, they do have some weaknesses. Because they like to kick safeties from 2 High to a single high look, they can have issues on the weak side protecting the cut back from the RB. They’ve also had some problems with the tight end on Y Stick, a concept that Nebraska loves to run as an RPO with the QB Lead Draw. And of course, as Husker fans saw last week when J.T. Barrett ran all over them for 137 yards on 5.27 YPC, they struggle even with slightly above average running QBs. Finally, while their secondary is pretty solid in coverage, they’re not the greatest tackling unit in the country.
Ultimately, if Nebraska’s offensive line is back near full health, the Huskers should be able to run the ball. Though Indiana likes to run blitz from the edge, their front four isn’t particularly great, and while the LBs are pretty solid, they’re not a unit that can shut the Huskers down for 60 minutes. They’ve also had some issues defending the Speed Option, so don’t be surprised to see Danny Langsdorf dust that off a time or two in this game.
Indiana is a defense that lacks a true superstar, but they also don’t have too many glaring weak spots either. Husker fans should be happy that there is no Dawuane Smoot on this team to terrorize Nebraska’s offensive line. But there isn’t a single guy to pick on either.
In the front 7, the defensive line can get pushed around over the course of a game, but they’re also not bad at shooting gaps and avoiding pullers. With Langsdorf straying away from the Power/Counter game this year, that shouldn’t be a huge issue for the Huskers in this game. That said, with how frequently the Hoosiers like to run blitz and stunt with it, Nebraska’s offensive line will need to be solid in their zone run schemes to prevent free run throughs from the Hoosiers’ front 4.
The Indiana LBs are a pretty instinctual group that plays down hill fast, but that should open up some space in the play action passing game as well. Both linebackers lead the Hoosiers in tackles, and they cover a lot of ground in the run game. And of course the defensive wild card is Ball, who will fold into the box often from his “Husky” safety position to add to the run fits.
On the back end of the defense, the Hoosiers break modern football trends to play a mythical white cornerback. Unfortunately, as with nearly every other white cornerback in existence, he rarely works out for them:
As if that’s not enough, they also play a white safety fairly heavily in their rotation. Suffice it to say that while the coverage scheme has put up pretty solid numbers thus far in 2016, Indiana’s DBs have been exposed fairly often on vertical routes. In the Michigan State game in particular, the Spartans wide receivers dropped a couple of passes that would have gone for 35+ yards and they hit the long TD pass above as well. And against Ohio State, it wasn’t J.T. Barrett’s best day throwing the ball, though the Buckeyes’ receivers had no issue finding open space down the field.
With both Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore healthy again, I expect Langsdorf to take a number of deep shots in this game. The short throws will be more difficult, but Nebraska has to find a way to make Indiana pay for all of the blitzing and pressing it they do.
For reasons we’ve already discussed about Indiana’s offense, this will be a game where Nebraska’s offense needs to put up points to win. Thankfully, the Huskers offensive line appears to be getting back to full speed and the Hoosiers’ defense has been relatively soft against the run. I don’t expect that to change in this game, as the Huskers are coming off a bye week and have had plenty of time to watch tape of Indiana’s run blitzes and to sync up the zone run game to overcome them.
Where the Huskers’ offense could struggle a bit is in the passing game. Langsdorf’s screen and draw package are ideal against the Hoosiers’ edge blitzes, but their coverage schemes will likely take away some of the easier throws that Langsdorf has established for Tommy Armstrong during the first third of the season. When that happens, Armstrong will need to be comfortable in the face of pressure, avoid the YOLO spin, and hit some vertical routes to Reilly and Moore against single coverage. Can he do it? I’m not sure he’ll have his greatest game, but I think the Huskers’ offense pops a couple of deep passing plays. He may also throw a couple of interceptions though on the Hoosiers’ trap coverage looks.
Those long passing plays, coupled with another productive day on the ground, should be enough to stave off the Hoosiers for this year. I don’t think it’s a blowout win, but I do think the Huskers cover the spread and find themselves inside the top 8 after this week’s games. Let’s call it 34-24 good guys and move on to Purdue.