BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana got a win Saturday night under the lights in Bowling Green, Ky., beating Western Kentucky 33-31 to even their record at 2-2 on the season. There was plenty to be happy about, too.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr., was great, completing a career-high 35 passes for 373 yards with — and probably most importantly — zero interceptions. Senior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle was back too, with 10 catches, and Mr. Perfect, kicker Charles Campbell, was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts, with a little humorous asterisk attached.
But there were a few very disturbing issues, too, which leads to a mixed back on the Week 4 record card. Right now, with four September games in the rear-view mirror, there are more questions than answers about this team, most notably this doozy:
Are they really any good?
The answer to that may come quickly in October as Big Ten play kicks in with a flurry. The next three games are all against ranked teams, No. 4 Penn State, No. 17 Michigan State and No. 11 Ohio State. Even the last game of the month, at Maryland on Oct. 30, could be a ranked showdown. The Terrapins are 4-0 right now, and just outside the top-25.
But before we dive too far ahead, let's dole out the grades for the Western Kentucky. game in our fourth report card of the season. Here we go:
Passing offense: A-minus
During practice last week, Indiana coach Tom Allen had a simple message for quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Quite simply, he told him to just relax, and go out and have fun. He did exactly that.
Staying calm and collected all night, he completed 35-of-53 passes for 373 yards and no interceptions. The completions were a career high, and the yardage was second-best even in his 19 career games, second only to the 491 last year at Ohio State.
He was very good at delivering the ball on time, and when Western Kentucky blitzed —which was often — he either took the sack (three) or got rid of the ball instead of forcing it into coverage.
"I think the thing that sticks out to me is that I thought he seemed more relaxed,'' Allen said of Penix. "We told him to just play ball, just have fun and don't overthink things. It's easy to press. Just play and don't overthink things. Don't worry about trying to be perfect or live up to what people thought you might do before the season.
"The idea of being your best, that's all we ask. You just need to be your best on every snap, and that's what I thought Michael was able to do.''
There were still a few drops, but not as many, and that still needs to get better. There were also some protection issues in the pass game, but I'll address that below in the coaching review.
Rushing offense: B-plus
Stephen Carr had his second 100-yard rushing game for the Hoosiers, gaining 109 yards on 25 carries and scoring two touchdowns. The USC transfer, man, he runs hard and is great at tacking on an extra yard or two on runs. He's been a nice addition to this team.
The run blocking was better, but still not where it needs to be. That's been a work in progress, and I am seeing improvement. Still need more. Indiana had 156 yards on designed run plays for the third week in a row, and I can live with that. Tim Baldwin Jr. had 33 yards on four carries, though he got stripped again late despite holding on tight with two hands. This grade might be a click too high, but I really like what Carr is doing.
Pass defense: C-minus
Indiana was very concerned about the explosiveness of Western Kentucky's frenetic, fast-paced offense coming into the game, and their worries all came to fruition in dealing with quarterback Bailey Zappe, who had 10 TD passes in the first two games.
He threw for another 365 yards against Indiana, and three touchdown passes. Where I thought Indiana had an edge coming in was with their ball-hawking secondary, but Zappe threw 44 passes with no interceptions. Indiana played very conservatively and gave Western the underneath throws all night long. It nearly cost them the game.
The quick throws basically negated Indiana's pass rush, too. Indiana had only one sack all night, from linebacker Micah McFadden. Western has good athletes and a great scheme, but Indiana didn't respond very well either. This was probably the most disappointing part of the night.
Rush defense: B-minus
Western Kentucky only ran the ball 20 times for 93 yards, and when they did, it often caught Indiana off guard. There were too many wide open run lanes, and part of that came from the pace. There were several plays where Indiana wasn't set, and the Hilltoppers ran right into open gaps.
"There are some calls. that just get in too late and guys are getting lined up right when they hike the ball,'' McFadden said. "You're kind of mid-play looking at your assignment, and you can't always play defense like that. That happened throughout the night, and there were definitely some scenarios when we were on our heels.''
McFadden, who had to miss last week's second half because of a targeting call, played great against Western. He had a team-high 12 tackles, plus that aforementioned sack and a tackle-for-loss on an edge play. He was also right in the middle of three third-and-short and fourth-and-short plays that were shut down and flipped the field.
The good outweighed the bad right there, because those stops were huge. But being better in the hurry-up is something that needs to get fixed quickly.
Special teams: A-minus
Charles Campbell is not only a great kicker, but he's also hilarious in the interview room. He was 4-for-4 officially on kicks, and remains perfect on the year. He's now 7-for-7 on the season, and has made 57 of 58 kicks counting extra points during his three-year career.
That perfection almost went away on Saturday, when his 51-yard attempt came up short. Thankfully, Western Kentucky was offsides and he got another shot from 46, which he made. Kick four field goals in a two-point game, and you're a hero.
"I'm a big golfer, and I believe in a breakfast ball,'' Campbell said with a laugh. "I'm so thankful that happened on my first kick because I just didn't hit it that well. I got the next one, thankfully. I felt like I was out there kicking a lot, which is fine. It was so much fun, obviously.''
Punter James Evans only had to punt twice all night, and averaged 45 yards with no returns. Kick coverage was OK. The only issue was D.J. Matthews mishandling a long punt, and then falling awkwardly while retrieving the ball. He hurt his knee on the play and did not return.
Let me first give props to this staff for doing a great job all week of flushing the Cincinnati loss and getting this team focused on moving forward. A good week of practice and a positive mental attitude was blatantly obvious in both Penix and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle.
Some things I didn't like though, especially on the defensive side of the ball. As McFadden mentioned, Indiana was a mess in getting plays in and being set against Western's fast-paced defense. That's a huge problem, and it almost came back to bite them in the two-point win. It needs to be fixed immediately with first-year coordinator Charlton Warren's defense.
I also didn't like that they played off of Western's receivers on the outside. They were giving up too many easy yards, and their receivers were good at breaking a tackle or using a pick — legally or not — to get free. Indiana has some great corners, and I would have like to see more press coverage.
Offensively, things were mostly good, but I had only one gripe. It seemed like Indiana's offensive line was ill-prepared for some of the Hilltoppers' blitz packages, where guys came free with clean shots on Penix. There needs to be better communication there, especially with the talented pass rushers Indiana will see in October.
Tom Allen said it best, that ''it's hard to win games in college football'' and that was certainly true Saturday night. Getting a win was a big deal for a team that led from start to finish but simply couldn't put the Hilltoppers away. When it was over, the Hoosiers were 2-2.
The biggest intangible was seeing Penix relaxed and playing at a high level. That was huge. It was also nice to go on the road and get a win, even if it was at quaint and cozy Western Kentucky.
There was enough to feel good about, and plenty to still work on going forward. Take the win, and learn from the rest.
Previous Indiana football report cards
- INDIANA-IOWA (Week 1): It was hard to find any positives in Indiana's 34-6 loss to Iowa in the season opener, a deflating beatdown in a showdown between two ranked teams. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA-IDAHO (Week 2): Indiana dominates Idaho, winning 56-14 thanks to an epic night by all of the Hoosiers' special teams. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA-CINCINNATI (Week 3): Indiana has four turnovers and loses a game to Cincinnati that they really should have won. CLICK HERE