On Senior Day in Bloomington, two college football teams whose goals are no longer in front of them will face off under a bright November sun. Michigan State and Indiana are rolling to the 2023 finish line with bits and pieces flying off the car, a punishing season finally approaching its merciful end. MSU’s season has been off the rails since the wee hours of the morning after the win over Richmond, when news broke of Mel Tucker’s misconduct, throwing the season into chaotic uncertainty. For Indiana, little was expected, but 3-7 this late in Tom Allen’s tenure isn’t where the Hoosiers want to be after a taste of success in 2019 and 2020.
Championships are won in November, the cliche goes, but I don’t know if that cliche applies to lame-duck bowls, where the winner gets to 4-7 with barely a prayer of playing in the postseason.
The Season So Far
Indiana football has never been a power, with their only 10 win season coming in 1945, so the Hoosiers have an uphill battle to success year after year. Their win total over/under was set at 3.5 before the season by most sportsbooks, tied for the lowest number in the Big Ten with Northwestern, so Indiana was expected to be at the bottom of the Big Ten East.
It’s still been a pretty rough go.
Faced with the unenviable task of opening the season against Ohio State, the Hoosiers held their own against the Buckeyes, dropping the opener 23-3. In Week 2, Indiana hosted the Sycamores from Indiana State and got a 41-7 get-right win against the putrid FCS squad from Terre Haute. A week later, Indiana played a tight game against a Louisville team that has proven itself to be a top 10 team before going back to Bloomington and winning a 4OT thriller against a bad Akron team. As a deranged person who actually watched the final quarter of that game and the overtimes, the Zips had no business losing that game.
Once Big Ten play resumed, the wheels came off for Indiana. A trip to Maryland ended with a lopsided loss, then after their bye, the Hoosiers dropped a 52-7 laugher to Michigan in the final game before the sign-stealing scandal broke. The skid continued with a loss to Rutgers, but the Hoosiers seemed to find a little something against Penn State a week later - In a game with a 31 point spread in favor of the Nittany Lions, Indiana was in the game until late in the going, falling 33-24 in Happy Valley. In Week 10, the Hoosiers got their first Big Ten win, taking Wisconsin down 20-14, before taking Illinois to overtime in a loss last week.
Yes, it’s 3-7, but it’s a far more traditional 3-7 than whatever this disaster of a season has been from the Spartans.
After watching Michael Penix Jr and Kalen DeBoer destroy Michigan State with my own eyes in Spartan Stadium earlier this year, it’s always hard to believe that the same duo was moving the ball in crimson just three years ago.
It’s a different story now in Bloomington.
Indiana opened the season with a second year offensive coordinator in Walt Bell calling the offense. Bell was dismissed after the Maryland loss, and he was replaced by Rod Carey on a permanent, non-interim basis. Since Carey was elevated, the offense has improved, which also coincides with a change at quarterback.
Tayven Jackson, the Tennessee transfer and younger brother of Hoosier hoops star Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Brendan Sorsby split touches at quarterback for the early part of the season, with Jackson seeing the majority of reps under Walt Bell. After the coordinator change and lopsided loss in Ann Arbor, Sorsby was given the keys to the offense, and it seems to be clicking a bit better under his direction. Particularly against Penn State and Illinois, Sorsby has been efficient and productive through the air and on the ground.
At receiver, converted quarterback Donaven McCulley is the clear leader. The Indianapolis native has 524 yards and 5 touchdowns, and is the go-to target for whoever is calling the signals for the Hoosiers. DeQuece Carter, the Fordham transfer, is second in yardage at 298 yards on the season. Carter, especially in his 90 yard touchdown catch against Penn State, has explosiveness in spades.
Cam Camper, Omar Cooper Jr, and Jaylin Lucas are in a log jam immediately behind Carter in terms of yardage, but all are viable targets on any given play.
The Hoosiers are not a good team on the ground. Jaylin Lucas leads the team in net rushing yards with 265. He, Trent Howland, Wake Forest transfer Christian Turner, and North Carolina transfer Josh Henderson are the leading tailbacks. Brendan Sorsby, the now-starting quarterback would lead in rushing yardage if QB sacks weren’t subtracted from rushing yardage in the college game, and he is a threat with his legs.
Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen is a defensive coach by trade, having been IU’s defensive coordinator under Kevin Wilson for a season after calling USF’s defense for a year before that. Chad Wilt is the DC/linebackers coach, in his second year in Bloomington.
Senior linebacker Aaron Casey holds a commanding lead in total tackles on Indiana’s defense, with 86 on the season, 19 ahead of Louis Moore. Casey is the best player on the Hoosier defense, as he leads the team in sacks, and is a constant threat to burst into the backfield, sacking the quarterback or stuffing the run.
Indiana’s Aaron Casey has been the best player on the field. He’s gotta be building NFL Draft buzz today. pic.twitter.com/R8F555NSeA— Bobby Football (@Rob__Paul) September 2, 2023
Louis Moore, a senior DB, has added 3 interceptions this season, including 2 in the tight win over Akron. Sophomore DB Philip Dunnam also has 3 picks this year, with one coming in the opener against Ohio State.
Indiana is 84th in total defense in FBS, where MSU is 60th by comparison.
How worried should we be?
This is a mid-November game between 3-7 teams, so worry probably isn’t the best way of framing this. This will likely be a competitive game. The spread is 4.5 in favor of Indiana, and given the way this season has gone, that’s totally fair. MSU has scored just 4 offensive touchdowns away from Spartan Stadium this season, and they haven’t done a whole lot better in East Lansing. There’s no reason to believe that MSU, especially without Sam Leavitt, can outscore anyone. Can Katin Houser reclaim some of the magic he found against Rutgers? Can a shorthanded Spartan defense shut Brendan Sorsby down?
This feels like a race to 17 points. Which 3-7 team will get there? We will see at Noon Saturday, on Big Ten Network, just as both of these teams deserve.