IOWA CITY, Iowa - Indiana is out to prove last season's breakout performance wasn't a fluke. For the football program in a basketball state, it will be presented with an excellent opportunity to begin that process on Saturday.
The Associated Press No. 18-ranked Hoosiers kick off the 2021 campaign against No. 17 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN). An IU win starts the validation process of being a top tier Big Ten program. A loss doesn't sink the season but it fuels the doubters.
Like Iowa, Indiana isn't going to win a lot of recruiting battles against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. To compete with the blue bloods of the league, it models itself after a Hawkeye outfit that consistently wins by developing student-athletes physically and mentally.
"Just, a lot of respect from me as the head coach at Indiana and what we're attempting to build here every single year and have a consistency that no matter who is out there each given year they play at a certain standard and that's what you see from them," Hoosier coach Tom Allen said.
Saturday marks IU's first trip to Iowa City since '14, two years before Allen came to Bloomington. He is 0-2 against the Hawkeyes.
"It's a great opportunity for this program to play on the road there in Kinnick Stadium, and it's going to be great atmosphere, great to have the fans back and it's going to be a tough and challenging environment to be in, without question," he said.
There's certainly reason for optimism in Bloomington. Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is arguably the Big Ten's best at the position and Ty Fryfogle returns after being named the league's top receiver a year ago.
"They have a lot of guys coming back, I think three starters on the offensive line," Hawkeye defensive end John Waggoner said. "Penix is a dual-threat guy, very poised, so we've got to keep him in the pocket and try to be disciplined on our rush lanes."
Linebacker Micah McFadden comes back after being named a third-team AP all-American in '20. He lines up in front of one of the conference's top secondaries led by outstanding cornerbacks Tiawan Mullen and Jaylin Williams, who helped produce 17 picks a year ago.
"They play different zones but they'll play man as well," Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. "The bottom line is they're a really talented secondary. They have a lot of experience."
If Indiana receives strong play up front, it could be one of the top defenses in the Big Ten. It has that in common with the Hawkeyes. It's replacing three starters from a line that led the league with 25 sacks in eight games last fall.
"They have a solid Front 6," Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. "They have four guys that really get after you and then they have two good linebackers. (McFadden) is going to play his butt off and we know that so we're going to be ready to go."
Hoosier junior Charles Campbell is one of the Big Ten's best place kickers. The Tennessee native appears on the Lou Groza Award watch list after connecting on 10 of 11 field-goal attempts, including all three from 50-plus yards, in '20 and all 25 PATs.
IU is breaking in a new punter with James Evans replacing Haydon Whitehead, who ranks third all-time in program history with a 41.4 average in three seasons as the starter. Like Hawkeye punter Tory Taylor, Evans hails from Australia.
David Ellis (kick) and Reese Taylor (punt) give the Hoosiers dangerous weapons in the return game.
Like the Hawkeyes, IU fields a well-rounded team with few weaknesses.
"Any time you play a Big Ten team you know it's going to be a hard-fought game and it's going to be competitive," Petras said. "So, I think we're excited. It's a great opportunity for our team. I know we're embracing the challenge.
TV ANNOUNCERS: Brandon Gaudin, James Laurinaitis, Rick Pizzo on BTN.
SERIES: Iowa holds a 45-28-4 advantage in the series that began with a 13-6 Iowa victory in 1912.
Iowa has won seven of the last eight meetings. The Hawkeyes are 24-10-3 all-time and have won three straight against the Hoosiers in Iowa City. Indiana is making its first trip to Iowa City since '14. Iowa won that game, 45-29.
The Hoosiers last win in Iowa City was a 38-20 victory in 2007.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 5.5-point favorite at Vegas Insiders on Sunday. That number dropped to 3.5 at William Hill in Vegas on Monday. The total was at 45.0.
-Hoosiers are 5-0 Against The Spread in their last 5 games as an underdog.
-Indiana is 8-0 ATS in its last 8 games as a road underdog.
-Hawkeyes are 5-1-1 ATS in their last 7 games overall.
-Under is 5-1-1 in Iowa's last 7 games as a home favorite.
INDIANA PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Michael Penix Jr., QB – The redshirt junior from Tampa is coming back from an ACL tear suffered last November. When healthy, he's one of the conference's top playmakers. He's 10-2 record as a starter and enters the season second on IU's career list in career completion percentage (61.6). He was a second-team all-conference pick and a Davey O'Brien Award semifinalist in '20.
–Micah McFadden, LB – Arguably the best player at his position in the Big Ten, the Tampa product is coming off a junior season that saw him earn third-team AP all-American honors. McFadden led the conference with six sacks last season and his 10.5 tackles for loss were third best in the league.
-Ty Fryfogle, WR – Like McFadden, Fryfogle earned third-team AP all-American honors last season. The super senior from Mississippi is the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year after catching 37 passes for 721 yards (19.5 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns in eight games last season.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Indiana: The Hooisers averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and ranked 12th in the Big Ten in rushing. If they're one dimensional against Iowa, it will be a long afternoon. They must muster up a running game.
Iowa: Take. Care. Of. The. Football. The Hawkeyes committed five turnovers in their two losses last year. If you give Penix Jr. extra opportunities, he will make you pay.
-Iowa and Indiana are meeting as AP ranked opponents for the second time ever and the first time since 1991, when No. 10 Iowa defeated No. 25 Indiana, 38-21, at Kinnick Stadium.
-IU is ranked in the preseason for the first time since 1969 and has appeared in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll for 11-straight weeks, a program record.
-Indiana has won 15-of-17 season openers, including last year's 36-35 overtime victory over No. 8 Penn State.
-IU has won 11 of its last 14 league games, its most successful stretch in program history.
-The Hoosiers have earned victories in their last three road season openers.
-Iowa’s first two opponents are ranked in the AP Top 25 (No. 17 Indiana, No. 7 Iowa State). It marks the fourth time in program history the Hawkeyes have opened a season against consecutive opponents ranked in the AP Top 25 (1960, 1973, 1974). The Hawkeyes started 2-0 in 1960, 1-1 in 1974 and 0-2 in 1973.
-Iowa has played 22 straight games without surrendering 25 points, the longest streak in the nation among Power 5 teams. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2020 in defensive yards per play (4.3). Iowa ranked No. 2 in the conference in total defense (313.8) and scoring defense (16.0), No. 3 in rush defense (107.6) and No. 5 in pass defense (206.1).
-Iowa is 97-33-2 (.748) in season-opening games, including an 18-4 mark under coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes have won six straight season openers before losing the opening game in 2020. Iowa is 18-2 in season openers since 2001.
-The Hawkeyes return all secondary starters on a defense that ranked third in the Big Ten with 11 interceptions in 2020 (Indiana 17; Northwestern 14). Iowa has 64 interceptions since 2017, tied for the most by any team in the country.
-Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum has been named a first-team preseason All-American by five publications. Linderbaum was a first-team All-American in 2020 and a Rimington Award Finalist. He has made 21 straight starts at center.
Indiana – Hoagy Carmichael
Iowa - Lara Parker
HOWE I SEE IT: Make no mistake, Allen really wants to beat Iowa. It's a program after which he models his outfit and topping the Hawkeyes would bring validation.
This matchup is pretty even on paper. If it were being contested on Bloomington, I'd probably favor the Hoosiers.
After not being in Kinnick Stadium for two years due to the pandemic, I would expect the Iowa faithful to make things very unpleasant for the visitors. And it's always one of the toughest road venues in the Big Ten anyway.
Indiana must prove it can run the ball effectively if it wants to spring the mild upset on Saturday. I need to see that happening to believe it.
Despite premium playmakers on both offenses, I think this will be a more defensive oriented game. Turnovers, time of possession and field position will be the difference.
PREDICTION: IOWA 24, Indiana 20
Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 25 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @HawkeyeNation on Twitter and @RobHoweHN