One year ago, Tom Allen prepared to improve one of the worst defenses in college football. Indiana had given up 37.6 points per game and 6.38 yards per play in 2015, canceling out a dynamic offense that lost games in which it scored 52, 41 and 41 points.
Allen is now IU’s head coach. That means, in his first and only year as defensive coordinator, he turned around the Hoosiers’ defense. IU gave up 10.4 fewer points per game and 129.4 fewer yards per game in 2016 than it did in 2015.
Nebraska’s made a similar switch in scheme and coordinator, going from Mark Banker to Diaco. Allen offered a glimpse Monday into how, when a coordinator hits on all cylinders with his defense, the results can be impressive.
Allen said he created a “culture” on defense when he arrived. It came with a motto — LEO, or “love each other” — and certain rules. The defense couldn’t use the word “turnover.” It had to be a “takeaway.”
“If I say ‘turnover,’ I have to do 25 pushups as a coach,” Allen said. “Players have to as well. We want to be aggressively attacking the football.”
Diaco, at NU, has the defense buying into his own cultural idiosyncrasies. He awards a bat and a golden football. Players yell whenever the ball’s on the ground. They conduct hustle drills at the start of practice.
Allen said the coaching to create aggression paid off in the first game when IU’s defense scored 16 of the team’s 34 points in a win over Florida International.
“It was real important for us to see that everything we did paid off,” said senior cornerback Rashard Fant, a Jim Thorpe Award candidate who had a pick-six in that FIU win. “… It helped build the defense’s confidence.”
A second key moment, Allen said, came in the Michigan State game, which IU won in overtime. Allen said he gathered up the defense and told players to be the reason Indiana won the game instead of losing it.
Indiana’s defense delivered, shutting the Spartans out in overtime.
“And two huge sacks to finish out that game was when I knew that things were going to change, in the confidence of our players, in the mindset of our players on defense,” Allen said. “Those were early in the season, and they were both huge things that I thought changed the trajectory of our defense.”
Allen also emphasized vocal leadership among his defensive players. He especially wanted it from IU’s best player, linebacker Tegray Scales, a Butkus and All-America candidate this season.
“You can’t just be: Hey, I’m going to lead by example,” Allen said. “That’s OK in a certain situation, but not to run the defense. Not to be a linebacker, in my mind, to run the team on our side of the football. So he embraced it. He bought into everything that I was telling him. He believed in it, and he lived it out.”
Allen became IU’s head coach after Kevin Wilson agreed to resign. Wilson quickly became Ohio State’s offensive coordinator. That’s Indiana’s season opener on a Thursday night.
Another coaching staff in the Big Ten didn’t have nearly as much success with its defense in Year 1: Illinois.
Even though Lovie Smith is a noted defensive mind who helped two NFL teams reach the Super Bowl, the Illini’s defense got much worse in 2016. Illinois gave up 54.3 more yards per game and 8.6 more points per game than it did in 2015 — as dramatic a struggle as Indiana had success.
“We have four (hours) every day (to learn) as opposed to a.m. and p.m., no time limit (in the NFL),” Smith said. “Everybody else has the same challenges. For us, it’s about, ‘What do you want to be as a player?’ and the time you have to commit. You can’t just be a great player and do what you do in that building … it’s what you do after you leave. That’s a part of changing a culture.”
Smith said he didn’t know much about Illinois’ previous defense, and thus couldn’t speak to the degree of transition, but he shrugged off struggles in 2016.
“Nah,” Smith said. “When you switch jobs, that’s our starting point. Sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward.”