Indiana coach Tom Allen spent the whole offseason stressing the need to create more turnovers.
He witnessed the payoff in Saturday’s season opener.
After forcing three turnovers in the first half including an interception return for a touchdown, it seems that the Hoosiers understood the message - even if they didn’t play the perfect game.
“When I first got here that was how we were able to create things and change field position and create momentum for our offense,” Allen said Monday. “It was definitely true on Saturday night, getting the two fumbles and the interception.”
A year ago, the Hoosiers (1-0) forced only 13 turnovers in 12 games.
So the fast start against Florida International certainly was a welcome change - especially given the predicament Allen has been dealt on offense.
Last week, he announced backup quarterback Brandon Dawkins had left the program and starting running back Morgan Ellison had been suspended indefinitely by the school for an undisclosed reason.
On Monday, there was more bad news. Ellison’s replacement, sophomore Cole Gest, will miss the rest of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Gest carried only five times for 17 yards in the first half Saturday before leaving the game. He was the Hoosiers’ second-leading runner in 2017.
It’s the third consecutive year the Hoosiers have lost a key player with a season-ending injury in the first two games.
Nick Westbrook, the team’s top returning receiver, suffered a torn ACL on the opening kickoff of last year’s opener against Ohio State.
The previous year Indiana lost its No. 1 receiver, Simmie Cobbs Jr., with an ankle injury on Indiana’s first possession in Week 2. Cobbs was suspended for the 2016 opener.
Allen will turn to senior Mike Majette, fifth-year senior Ricky Brookins and freshman Stevie Scott to carry the bulk of the load - at least until there’s some clarity on Ellison’s situation.
“The bottom line is that seasons always give you things you don’t expect and, obviously, this is one of those for us,” Allen said. “You have to adapt and move on and we’ll be able to utilize our whole personnel that we have on the offensive side of the football.”
Allen still needs answers on defense, too.
While safety Jonathan Crawford played a part in two of the turnovers, including the interception return, Allen didn’t give the defense high marks.
He expected more out of the front seven, thought there were too many blown assignments and certainly expected better discipline than giving away first-down conversions three times on third-down penalties.
“I did not feel like that we did a good enough job on first downs,” he said. “That, to me, was probably the biggest issue, getting them in manageable situations and creating too many third-and-mediums and third-and-shorts. I did not feel like, in the red zone, we played to the level I know we have to play at.”
Yes, it is early.
The problem, of course, is the learning curve becomes much steeper this week when Indiana hosts bowl-tested Virginia.
Allen’s experienced defense made things challenging on the Cavaliers in last year’s 34-17 victory at Charlottesville. But what he needs to see this week is a defense that plays better, more fundamentally sound football and still comes up with the game-changing plays.
“I was tough on them (Monday) in our meetings and challenged them about the standard we have set on defense,” Allen said. “You’re kind of rebuilding all this with so many new faces and guys out there for the first time. We had some rookie mistakes, several times, and that’s unfortunately to be expected, but they have to decrease each and every week. To me, that’s the key for us is how well we, as coaches, can get our guys to be able to play at a high level defensively and create (turnover) opportunities.”
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