BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana looks to even its record at 2-2 on Saturday night when they make a rare trip to Western Kentucky for a game with the Hilltoppers.
The game starts a 8 p.m. ET, and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.
It's a big game for the Hoosiers, who are staggering a bit after losing twice to top-eight teams. They've lost to No. 5 Iowa and No. 8 Cincinnati, and need to fix that in a hurry.
Even though they played well enough to beat Cincinnati last week, it didn't happen, and that's all that matters. Four turnovers plus a failed fourth-down attempt deep in the red zone was too much to overcome.
"It's still a loss, so it stinks. It hurts. I hate it,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "There's no question that we can't make mistakes, but you know what, they made plays, so that's what you've got to do. You've got to make plays.
"We've got to protect the football and they're trying to take it from us. That's the objective of the game. But yeah, it definitely feels different in some ways, but at the same time it still hurts just as much.''
So on they go to Western, a team with the No. 1 passing attack in the country, even though gaudy stats have come against Tennessee-Martin and Army.
Some fans have said we should lower our expectations on this Indiana team. Sorry, but I'm not going there. They're still a good team in my book, and I think. they show that on Saturday night.
"I believe in this team and I know we have a chance to do some really special things if we just continue to get better and eliminate the mistakes,'' Allen said. "That to me is the focus. We're disappointed but we're not discouraged. This team has got a ton of character and toughness and grit and fight to it.
"Yeah, we're 1-2; it's not where any of us wanted to be. So what are you going to do? Feel sorry for yourself, because I guarantee nobody else is. So we're going to bow up and we're going to fight; I promise you that.''
Here are three things I want to see Saturday night when the Hoosiers take on Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky.
1. ZERO turnovers from the offense
Indiana should have beaten No. 8 Cincinnati last weekend in Bloomington, but four huge turnovers — three Michael Penix interceptions and a fourth-quarter fumble on the 2-yard line by Tim Baldwin Jr. — crushed the Hoosiers.
Indiana has has 10 turnovers so far in just three games, and that has to stop. There can be no more bad decisions that result in interceptions from Penix, and they can't keep putting the ball on the ground with fumbles — four thus far — especially at the worst moments.
"I still continue to be disappointed — not discouraged, but disappointed — in the way we did not finish the game,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "We did a lot of good things, but we didn't finish. We made too many mistakes, and we talk about protecting the football at a high level all the time. We haven't done that in the two games that we've lost.
"Obviously, we saw glimpses of what we can become and what we need to be and what I know we can be. We just have to be consistent, and that's what's going to be the focus this week and moving forward with our guys. We've had some good discussions — very open, honest discussions — about taking responsibility for where we're at. We know where we are, and we know where we want to be. We just have to continue to move through that.''
This is a team that hasn't usually shot themselves in the foot like this. Ball security has to become first priority, and that has to start on Saturday night.
2. Secondary flips the field with interceptions
Last year during Indiana's program-changing 6-1 regular season, the Hoosiers' secondary led the nation in interceptions per game. This year, the Hoosiers have just one pick so far, from Husky Marcelino Ball last week against Cincinnati. The cornerback and safeties have been completely shut out so far.
That's another thing that has to change immediately, starting with Saturday night's game against Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers just might decide to throw the ball on every down, and quarterback Bailey Zappe — who was a three-year starter at Houston Baptist before transferring this spring — has thrown for 435 and 424 yards respectively in their first two games against Tennessee-Martin and Army. He's got 10 touchdown passes already, and two interceptions.
We might see all three of Indiana's ''starting'' cornerbacks on the field at the same time, so it 's time for Tiawan Mullen, Jaylin Williams and Reece Taylor to start creating turnovers. It will also help having safety Devon Matthews back after getting injured early in the Iowa season opener. Indiana's secondary is the strength of this team — so this is the game where they need to take over.
3. Offensive line gets more physical
The play of Indiana's offensive line thus far has been average at best. The group has had some nice moments, but pass protection needs to be better for sure, and dominating this game on the ground is a must.
Western Kentucky has good skill people, but where Indiana should have a big edge is in the trenches. And especially on offense, where the Hoosiers' offensive line should be able to push the Hilltoppers around a little bit, and open some holes for Stephen Carr and Indiana's stable of running backs.
Moving Matt Bedford from left tackle to right guard has been a huge plus to this line, and he's handled the move well. He was already a good run blocker, and he fits even better at guard, especially alongside big Caleb Jones on the right side.
You always have to take Army's numbers with a grain of salt because they run the option, but they gashed Western Kentucky for 331 yards on the ground. Indiana, which is ran for 179 yards against Idaho and 152 versus Cincinnati, could easy rush for 200 or more Saturday night and take the pressure off of Penix, who's definitely struggling.
This is the game where the O-line needs to pick up the slack and led the team to a dominating offensive performance.