Nebraska returns to Memorial Stadium after a bye to start its Big Ten season in earnest. On the opposite sideline will be a formidable Indiana team that’s already jumped out to a 1-0 conference start.
The Hoosiers started 3-0 before a second-quarter sandbagging by Cincinnati last week. Of course, Indiana held its own against the Bearcats in everything but turnovers. They were nearly identical in time of possession and separated by 46 total yards.
That Cincinnati game followed a 3-0 start where Indiana needed last-minute touchdowns to force overtime and beat Western Kentucky (on an overtime drive that managed negative-8 yards) and rival Illinois. Indiana also beat Idaho, 35-22, earlier this season.
Indiana provides a few complications for opponents. Especially, this season, on the offensive side.
The Hoosiers toss the ball and they like to go fast. Quarterback Connor Bazelak threw 66 times against Cincinnati. He threw 55 times against Western Kentucky, 52 against Illinois and 29 against Idaho. He’s thrown for 1,171 so far, third in the Big Ten. Most of the yards (418) and catches (33) have gone to Cam Camper, who has hauled in one touchdown so far this season.
This is spurred by one of the nation’s second-fastest offense. Indiana averages 93.7 plays per game, 3.3 per minute. Whether Bazelak is in his drop back or Shaun Shivers is running out of the backfield, tempo poses a problem to a struggling defense under a new coordinator.
“My thing is we have to get the calls in,” Joseph said. “Bill (Busch) has to get the calls in and we have to execute the call.”
Joseph said that means having calls ready as soon as plays end and keeping them to one word. That word has to dictate front, blitz and coverage. Joseph trusts Busch to run the kind of defense he wants. Busch elaborated that means a highly competitive, fast defense.
The Huskers’ coach said he liked how fast the defense moved in practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Nebraska’s defense has also struggled to stop the run at times this year. This could give the Huskers a chance to regroup against a team that’s struggled to establish its leading rusher. Outside of the game against FCS Idaho, Shivers hasn’t ran for more than 79 yards in a game despite never getting less than 15 carries.
Indiana’s uptempo offense has garnered a lot of attention but the Hoosiers’ defense has bite.
Senior linebacker Cam Jones leads the Big Ten with 43 tackles (Nebraska’s Luke Reimer is second with 39, for context). Freshman Dasan McCullough is fifth in the conference with 3.0 sacks (2.0 came against Idaho). McCullough did not appear in the loss to Cincinnati. Defensive coordinator Chad Wilt said the Hoosiers move him around the front seven, mostly as an edge rusher.
Joseph complimented Indiana’s ability to stop the run against Cincinnati. The Bearcats ran for 40 yards, including 25 from leading rusher Charles McClelland.
Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple said he’s comfortable with Gabe Ervin Jr. stepping into the secondary rusher role after freshman Ajay Allen went down with a season-ending injury. He and leading rusher Anthony Grant will run behind an offensive line that’s been retooled to accommodate injuries.
“Ajay was coming along and was having a good game,” Whipple said. “We just go to the next guy up.”
Quarterbacks have found openings in Indiana’s defense. Casey Thompson and his 995 yards this season will look to his ensemble of receivers to exploit those openings. That includes Trey Palmer, the fifth-leading receiver in the conference, who broke the school record for most receptions (28) in the first four games of any Husker season.
Whipple also said the offense self-scouted this week and took unsuccessful plays out of the playbook while adding others.
Charles Campbell is Indiana’s trusty leg. He’s converted every extra point and has made eight of his nine field goal attempts this season. His one miss came between 30-39 yards and his longest this year reached 51 yards.
James Evans is the punter, averaging just under 44 yards per boot. Of his 19 punts, seven have gone over 50 yards, seven went inside the 20, five were fair caught and two went out for touchbacks.
Indiana hasn’t show much explosiveness so far in the return game other than freshman Jaylin Lucas, who has one kickoff return for 38 yards this season.