BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — This has been a hard season for Indiana football so far, hard to win games, hard to figure, hard to find hope that it will turn around quickly.
The Hoosiers, ranked No. 17 in the preseason, are just 2-3 right now, but their losses have come to No. 2 Iowa, No. 3 Cincinnati and No. 4 at the time Penn State. There's been no shame in losing, but there are serious concerns about how they lost. They weren't competitive at all at Iowa (34-6) and Penn State (24-0), and still haven't scored a touchdown in a Big Ten game this season.
They really could have beaten Cincinnati, but five turnovers (counting a failed fourth-down conversion inside the 10-yard-line) all came at the worst time. A win there might have changed a lot of perceptions.
But now comes Michigan State, which is 6-0 after going just 2-5 last year and getting pounded 24-0 at home by Indiana last November. And you know what I've said all week. They have played a much easier schedule than Indiana, and I'm still really not sold on how good the Spartans are. In Big Ten games, they have beaten Northwestern, Rutgers and Nebraska, who are a combined 1-8 in league games, with the only win being Nebraska OVER Northwestern. Someone had to win.
Of course, the problem with saying that is that I also really don't know how good Indiana is either. Tom Allen agreed with me that playing so many games against elite competition has exposed all of Indiana's flaws. It's been tough to see, and it's definitely scraped the luster off of this season. It's stunning how so many people have jumped off the bandwagon.
Which brings us to Saturday. Indiana benefited greatly from a bye week, getting a chance to get their legs back and their minds refreshed. The Hoosiers keep everything close to the vest when it comes to injuries, and Allen hasn't said much about quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who suffered a separated AC joint at Penn State, or cornerbacks Tiawan Mullen and Reese Taylor.
I know enough about AC joint injuries to guess that Penix can't go today, and that Jack Tuttle will get the start. Mullen and Taylor, we'll have to see, and if I had to guess, they will play.
I'll be honest, I'm not concerned about Tuttle if he has to play. Much like his teammates and coaches, I think he can play, too. He moved the ball well in his limited time at Penn State, and outside of one bad interception, he had a good night. Penix has struggled anyway, so Tuttle could give this struggling offense a nice emotional boost, too.
Frankly, I would be more concerned if Mullen and Taylor can't go. In projecting this game, I thought Indiana could win if they sell out on the run and then force some turnovers in the pass game. That's easier to do with Mullen and Taylor on the field, along with fellow corner Jaylin Williams. If they're out, it changes a lot, because that corner depth will really be challenged.
I am standing true to the comment I made earlier, that Michigan State's 6-0 record is a bit fraudulent. I've already pointed out how easy their Big Ten schedule has been, and their nonconference wins over Youngstown State and Western Kentucky don't mean a lot. Western is decent — Indiana beat them, too — and quarterback Bailey Zappe threw for 488 yards against them. (He had 365 against Indiana.)
Their one signature win was at Miami, but the Hurricanes are frauds, too. D'Eriq King threw for 388 against Michigan State too, but they gave the game away with four turnovers.
See? It's hard for me to buy in on the Spartans completely. The line on Saturday morning varies from 3.5 to 5 points in favor of Michigan State. We use the line on our Sports Illustrated portal, SISportsbook.com, as the official, and it's sitting at 4 points on Saturday.
I felt like I had this game figured out all along, and I do think that Indiana will show up Saturday and play well. If it's Tuttle, I think he can throw against Michigan State's secondary, which clearly has issues. He just has to do a good job of protecting the ball. If Indiana wins the turnover battle, they win the game.
What this game turns on is Indiana's defense, in my opinion. They've been mostly good this year, outside of a handful of explosive plays. At Iowa, for instance, they allowed a 56-yard run by Hawkeyes star Tyler Goodson on the first drive, but then held him to just 39 yards on 17 carries after that, and forced two fumbles by Cam Jones and Raheem Layne. They need to keep Kenneth Walker III, the nation's leading rusher with 913 yards, in check.
The only time Indiana really got gashed defending the run was against Cincinnati after linebacker Micah McFadden, Indiana's best player so far this season, was ejected for a bogus targeting call.
This is a big if, but I think if Mullen and Taylor can go and McFadden is able to play a full 60 minutes, that Indiana wins this game. There are no asterisks in the prediction game, though, so I know I can't buffer my pick.
This might blow up in my face, but I think Tuttle starts and passes for 250 yards at least, and a couple of scores. I think Indiana's defense keeps Walker in check and forces a mistake or two from Payton Thorne.
And lastly, I think Indiana's home crowd makes a difference.
I'm saying Indiana wins this game, 30-24. Charles Campbell makes all three of his field goal attempts, and the Hoosiers hold Walker under 120 yards.
As I said, it might very well blow up in my face if Indiana is shorthanded on defense, but that's where I'm going with the pick. The combination of a bye week and a home game is big, and I think that makes a difference.
Don't take it to the bank, just know that the 30-24 is just my feeling, just my pick. It's a beautiful day for football here, so a win would be great.
They need it.
Related stories on Indiana football
- HOW TO WATCH: Here is everything you need to know to watch Saturday's Indiana-Michigan State game on TV today, with game times, point spreads, nuggets and more. CLICK HERE
- MATTHEWS STILL 'MONSTER': Indiana safety Devon Matthews is back from a scary nerve injury, and it hasn't slowed him down on the field one bit. He's still coming at you, and ready to hit people. Tom Brew's story. CLICK HERE
- POWER RANKINGS: Our Week 7 power rankings are in, and No. 1 Iowa holds down the fort still after the big win over Penn State, but now it's Ohio State that's knocking on the door. CLICK HERE
- BIG TEN ROUNDTABLE: It's Episode 2 of our "Big Ten Roundtable'' podcast, as we check in on Penn State and Michigan during great interviews with FanNation publishers Mark Wogenrich and Brandon Brown. Very entertaining. CLICK HERE
- MICAH McFADDEN PODCAST: Indiana linebacker talks about the benefits of having a bye week and a home game back-to-back, and the challenges that lie ahead Saturday when unbeaten Michigan State comes to Bloomington. Watch the full podcast here. CLICK HERE
- DEPTH AT RUNNING BACK: Indiana has lost two running backs to the transfer portal and now David Ellis is out for the season. Several young backs are now going to have to step up behind Stephen Carr. CLICK HERE
- CONFIDENCE IN TUTTLE: If Jack Tuttle has to start at quarterback on Saturday for Indiana with Michael Penix Jr. still nursing a shoulder injury, everyone in the Hoosiers' locker room is confidence that Tuttle will play well. CLICK HERE