Forgive me for using clichés, but this one appropriately describes the current situation in the Big Ten, especially its East division.
Defense wins championships.
We saw this with Ohio State as it shut out Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship game, then the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship game when it held a prolific Oregon offense to 20 points in a 42-20 victory.
Every year, the Buckeyes continue to be projected in the top three of the Big Ten East in large part due to their defense. It’s what separates them from cellar dwellers like Kevin Wilson’s Hoosiers, which must improve their defense, especially their secondary, if they want to be competitive in a division that will be just that this upcoming season.
To say the defense will make or break IU’s season would be an understatement. The offense has seen improvement each season, but the defense hasn’t been able to back it up. Just ask Dino Baber’s Bowling Green Falcons, who defeated the Hoosiers 45-42 at Bowling Green on a last-second touchdown.
That’s only one instance of many where the defense failed Indiana last season. This season, though, should be much better. Led by Darius Latham, Nick Mangieri and Tegray Scales, the pass rush looks primed for a great season. However, I can’t say the same about the secondary.
Safeties coach Noah Joseph and cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby were already dealing with an inexperienced secondary earlier this spring. Junior safety Antonio Allen’s arrest on June 16 and subsequent dismissal from the program the next day only made matters worse for a secondary in which Allen was the lone returning starter.
Kenny Mullen, a redshirt senior, hasn’t started a game since his sophomore year. Additionally, he was set back in spring ball by a knee injury. Inexperience in the secondary puts Indiana’s defense at a major disadvantage heading into the season and even preseason camp.
Speaking of experience, hopefully having a full year working in second-year defensive coordinator Brian Knorr’s scheme will benefit the Hoosiers this fall. There were certainly growing pains at times last season, but that’s the case with any new coordinator working with players who spent two or three years in one scheme then made adjustment a new one in a short amount of time.
Still, that can’t be used as a scapegoat for a defensive secondary that was burned often, allowing 250.7 passing yards per game and finishing last in the Big Ten in the same category. The positions in the 3-4 scheme that have to adjust the most are the defensive linemen and linebackers. The secondary still has its two corners and two safeties, unless they’re operating in a dime or nickel package.
Secondary improvements and becoming comfortable will be key for Indiana’s defense and the team’s success overall this fall. The offense, which seemingly sets a new record of some kind every season, has never been the problem. The defense has.
The defense did show signs of improvement in spring ball earlier this year, but those improvements must become permanent, even routine, for this defense and team to compete for the upper half of the Big Ten East.