BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It was there for the taking, an all-important win against a top-10 team in front of a sold-out crowd. Indiana was that good on Saturday, but it didn't last.
And because of huge mistakes in all three phases, Cincinnati erased an early two-touchdown deficit to come back and win 38-24 on Saturday. It was a frustrating loss for Indiana's coaches and players, but it was also hard to swallow for the sellout crowd of 52,656 fans, who have bought in to Indiana's football resurgence, only to be massively disappointed twice in the first three weeks in losses to Iowa and Cincinnati, two teams currently ranked No. 5 and No. 8 respectively. Indiana is the only team in the country to have played two top-10 teams.
Here’s how the Hoosiers graded out against 3-0 Cincinnati in my third Report Card of the season:
Passing offense: C-minus
During Michael Penix Jr.'s first three years on campus, he had thrown 414 passes around a slew of injuries, and had just eight interceptions for the Hoosiers.
But for the second time in three weeks, Penix had three interceptions on Saturday against Cincinnati — and they were all daggers.
The first one came in the end zone with the Hoosiers already ahead 7-0. It ended a great drive where Penix had been 4-for-4 for 47 yards.
The second pick came right before halftime on a bad throw, and it gifted the Bearcats three points at the buzzer, and a ton of momentum. The third pick was a desperation pass late in the game, when the Hoosiers were trailing 30-24. It was returned to the 6-yard line and the Bearcats scored two plays later to ice the game.
Turnovers are killing the Hoosiers, and the picks have to stop. Penix has never thrown more than four interceptions in a season — until now, when he's got six already. Florida State (7) is the only Power 5 school with more.
The receivers can take some of the blame for the passing woes as well. For instance, Ty Fryfogle, the Big Ten receiver of the year in 2020, had three drops on Saturday, some at critical times. That can't happen either.
The turnovers did take away from some good things. Penix did complete 17 passes for 224 yards, and D.J. Matthews, the Florida State transfer, had five of them for 120 yards, his first 100-yard game as a Hoosier, and the second of his career. Tight end Peyton Hendershot was really good, too, making six catches for 60 yards and a score.
Rushing offense: C-plus
Indiana rushed for 152 yards on 37 carries, a 4.1-yard average, and if you would have asked them before the game if that was a workable number, I think they would have said yes. Starter Stephen Carr had just 52 yards on 21 carries, but there were some big plays along the way that were huge.
Davion Ervin-Poindexter had a big 37-yard run, and D.J. Matthews had two 14-yard runs on end arounds, with one going for a score.
But this grade took a massive fall when sophomore Tim Baldwin Jr. fumbled on the 2-yard line midway through the fourth quarter as the Hoosiers were about to go back ahead again with the score at 30-24. Much like Penix, you simply cannot turn the ball over in a spot like that.
That fumble is hard to overlook, of course, and nor should it be. But it was too bad, because there were some nice play calls and designs that showed up in this game, and running for 152 against that Cincinnati defense is impressive. It should have been enough.
Pass defense: B-minus
Indiana had an early interception (Marcelino Ball) against Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, and completely shut him down early. It was great to see Ball get a pick, because he's talked often in the offseason that it was hard to watch his pals lead the nation in interceptions per game last season and not be part of it.
Ridder was 20-for-36 for 210 yards and a score, and he had much more success against Indiana's defense in the second half. His one touchdown pass was a perfect throw into the right corner of the end zone to Alec Pierce.
Indiana's pass rush had just one sack (Ryder Anderson), but they made Ridder uncomfortable early. But it didn't last, and he was open to find open receivers with regularity in the second half.
Rush defense: B-minus
Indiana allowed just 118 yards rushing on 36 carries, an impressive enough 3.3-yard average, but the Bearcats did score three touchdowns on the ground, and the rush defense wasn't nearly as good after All-American linebacker Micah McFadden was ejected late in the second quarter.
This rush defense was crazy good early, when they were ''completely dominating'' through the first six possessions, where Cincinnati had just one first down, two turnovers and three three-and-outs. But too many big plays late forced this grade down a letter.
Special teams: C-minus
Indiana's special teams were so good a week earlier against Idaho, but they didn't do much against Cincinnati and the kick coverage unit allowed a 99-yard return to the speedy Tre Tucker.
That can't ever happen in a game, of course, but this was huge because Indiana had just gone back up 21-17 after an impressive drive and momentum had swung back to the Hoosiers. The kickoff return erased that immediately.
As usual, kicker Charles Campbell was really good. He made a 49-yard field goal late in the third quarter to give Indiana a 24-23 lead, and he made all three extra points. Freshman punter James Evans did well, averaging 44.5 yards on his four punts.
Sure, the players play the game, but all of these massive errors are also a reflection on the coaching staff, and they know it. There's plenty of blame to go around in all three phases, with the turnovers on offense, the missed assignments on defense and the huge blunder on special teams with the kickoff return for a touchdown.
Sure, Indiana's schedule has been difficult. They're the only team in the country that's played two top-10 teams already. But this game was there for the taking, and it didn't happen. Indiana did a lot of good things early, but it struggled with handling adversity and the game spun on a dime with the turnovers.
This group, they need to be better, too.
The best grade of the day comes here, and that's all on the fans who filled Memorial Stadium for the first time since 2017. It was nice to see every seat full, and it was impressive to see the crowd's impact. Cincinnati had six false start penalties, primarily because the noise was that much of a factor.
This fan base really wants this team to be good, and they showed out on Saturday. The grade would have been an A, but I saw a lot of bandwagon-jumping late, and there's a grading price to pay for that.
Related stories on Indiana football
Related stories on Indiana football
- HOOSIERS FAVORED: Indiana has opened as a 10-point favorite for Saturday's game at Western Kentucky. CLICK HERE
- TOM BREW COLUMN: Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden was ejected for targeting late in the first half on Saturday, and the Hoosiers defense fell apart after he left in a disappointing 38-24 loss to No. 8 Cincinnati. CLICK HERE
- GAME STORY: Three wasted trips into the red zone hurt Indiana in a disappointing 38-24 loss to No. 8 Cincinnati on Saturday at sold-out Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. CLICK HERE
- ASSOCIATED PRESS POLL: Penn State moves up four spots to No. 6 after an impressive win over Auburn and Michigan State joins the rankings after an impressive upset victory on the road over Miami. There are six Big Ten teams in the top-25 rankings. CLICK HERE
- LIVE BLOG: Relive all the big plays in real time and see all the highlights in ouir live blog from Saturday' Indiana-Cincinnati game. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA SCHEDULE: Here is the complete 2021 Indiana football schedule, with links to game stories, report cards and Tom Brew columns from the first three games thus far. Game times and TV information is available as well, where applicable. CLICK HERE