BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Turnovers always play a big role in every tight football game, but Indiana's miscues on Saturday against No. 8 Cincinnati literally cost them a game they could have won.
Cincinnati won 38-24 thanks to four Indiana turnovers plus a questionable failed effort on fourth down in the red zone. All the mistakes were too much to overcome.
The turnovers were all big, but two of them late in the fourth quarter were daggers.
Trailing 30-24 midway through the fourth quarter, Indiana marched downfield quickly and had the ball first-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Sophomore running back Tim Baldwin was tackled for no gain, but Cincinnati thought it had a fumble recovery. Baldwin was ruled down by contact on the field, but it was reviewed and the ball was given to Cincinnati, taking away a golden scoring opportunity that would have put them ahead.
"You've got to protect the football. That's rule No. 1 in the running backs room,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said. "No fumbles are allowed in that room, but I thought he was running hard.''
Then, after forcing a punt, Indiana quarter Michael Penix Jr. threw a bad interception throwing across his body in the middle of the field. It was his third interception of the game, and his sixth on the season. He only had four interceptions all year in 2020, and had only thrown eight interceptions in his first three years. Cincinnati went down and scored to ice the game.
"It's a collective group, but it's better decision-making by him, too,'' Allen said. "You've got to protect the football. Against a good football team like this, you can't make those kind of mistakes. That was the game right there.''
Indiana fell to 1-2 on the season with the loss, its second chance at a ranked foe that came up short. They never had a chance in the opener, losing 34-6 to Iowa, which was a stark contrast to this game, where they had chances galore.
Indiana had three different trips into the red zone where it came away empty handed, and it negated a chance to blow the game open early with Indiana's defense dominating. On the Bearcats' first six possessions, they had more turnovers (2) and first downs. Nearly 25 minutes into the game, they had just 30 yards of offense.
Indiana turned those turnovers into points, too. Indiana's Marcelino Ball snared a tipped ball midway through first quarter, and the Hoosiers quickly drove 50 yards for the first score of game. Penix found tight end Peyton Hendershot open in the left flat, and he broke a tackle to score.
Cincinnati's second turnover came on a strip sack from Indiana defensive end Ryder Anderson. The ball bounced around a bit, and linebacker Micah McFadden picked up the ball and returned it all the way to the 6-yard line. Two plays later, Penix hit running back Stephen Carr with a short pass in suddenly it was 14-0 against a Cincinnati. team that won all nine of its regular season games a year ago and was 2-0 to start this season.
It looked like Indiana was closing in for the kill, too, when it stopped Cincinnati on third down to force another punt with 4:04 to go in the half. Hoosiers defensive end Jaren Handy had corralled quarterback Desmond Ridder as he was throwing, and as. their momentum brought them forward, McFadden hit him, too.
No play was called on the field, but the booth reviewed the hit for targeting, and deemed it a foul. McFadden was ejected, and Cincinnati got a first down. Six plays later, Jerome Ford scored from 6 yards out and it was 14-7.
It was a huge momentum swing.
"It was massive, a game-changer for sure,'' Allen said. "We were dominating them. They only had one first down and it was almost the end of the half. He's a great football player and he's our leader, and he's a huge p[art of everything we do.
"But it was a great teaching moment for our team, and that's tough. But other guys have to step up. Life's not fair, but what are you going to do? How are you going to respond?''
Indiana should have just run out the clock with less than a minute left, but Penix forced a bad throw and was intercepted. Cincinnati tacked on a field goal to make it 10-7 at the break.
Cincinnati put together a good drive early in the third quarter to take the lead at 17-14, but Indiana got the lead back quickly on what might have been its most impressive drive of the season, flying down the field in just five plays that covered 75 yards. The score was impressive, a 14-yard reverse by D.J. Matthews that completely fooled the Cincinnati defense, and it put the Hoosiers ahead 21-17.
But Cincinnati answered immediately, with Tre Turner returning the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for a score. They missed the extra point, and Indiana quickly answered with a 49-yard field goal by Charles Campbell to go back ahead.
Ridder led the Bearcats on another impressive drive to get the lead back, capping it off with a beautiful 19-yard touchdown pass to Alec Pierce, who went up over Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen to make the grab.
Indiana answered, though, as seemed set to put the game away when Baldwin fumbled at the 2.
For Allen, who preached ball security constantly, that was inexcusable, especially considering the time — there was just 8 minutes left in the game — and location.
For Penix, this was his third three-interception game in two weeks, which is rare because he had never done that before during his IU career, and had thrown only eight interceptions in 414 attempts prior to this season.
Now, he has six in just 87 throws this year.
Penix, who finished the day 17-for-40 passing for 224 yards, wasn't available afterward because he was taken for X-rays. No update was given on his status.
Six turnovers are a concern, though, and like everyone else, he will be graded heading into next week's game at Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
"Everybody will be evaluated and nobody's job is safe on this team. You've seen how good we can be, but you can also what happens when we make mistakes,'' Allen said. "But, yes, we'll evaluate everything.''
This was Indiana's first sellout at Memorial Stadium since 2017 and it was the first time they had hosted a top-10 nonconference teams since playing No. 2 USC in 1981. The crowd of 52,656 made a difference, too, with Cincinnati being called for six false start penalties.
"One of our players reminded that a few years ago I had to go out and give away tickets. It's changed a lot,'' Allen said. "It was a great atmosphere and the students were great again.
Cincinnati, trying to become the first non-Power 5 team to make the playoffs, got an important win in Bloomington, and they get another huge opportunity in their next game in two weeks when they play No. 12 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
"We didn’t play a great game, but (our guys) are competitors,” Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said.
Indiana rushed for 152 yards on 37 carries, a 4.1-yard average. Matthews was the top. receiver, with 120 yards.