Indiana brokered its wild overtime victory against Penn State last season into a 6-1 Big Ten record and host of preseason love letters. Could the Hoosiers contend for a conference title this season?
The question remains after a 2-2 start, though the Hoosiers remain confident in their ability to win games like these. So what strengths and weaknesses do the Hoosiers bring to Beaver Stadium on Saturday? We asked Tom Brew, publisher of SI.com's Hoosiers Now channel for his insights on Indiana.
How would you assess Indiana's 2-2 start?
Well, it’s been a disappointing month, for sure, mostly because of all the preseason expectations that the Hoosiers brought into the season. It’s hard to be hugely disappointed in the results because the two losses are to the No. 5 (Iowa) and No. 7 (Cincinnati) teams in the country.
The disappointment has been in how they’ve played. They went to Iowa and completely laid an egg in the opener, losing 34-6. Michael Penix Jr. threw three interceptions in the opener, and that’s the first time he’s ever done that. But then he did it again two weeks later in the 38-24 loss to Cincinnati at sold-out Memorial Stadium in Bloomington.
The biggest difference between the two losses was that they played well enough to beat Cincinnati except for the huge turnovers. They also turned it over on downs inside the 10-yard line once and backup running back Tim Baldwin Jr. fumbled 2 yards away from a go-ahead score midway through the fourth quarter.
There’s still plenty of optimism in Indiana’s locker room, and part of that is because they did play so well for long stretches against a very good Cincinnati team. It gives them hope.
How has Michael Penix Jr. played so far? Does he have any lingering effects from the 2020 injury?
As I mentioned above, he’s off to a rocky start, mostly because he’s been pressing too much, trying to make a play. He had only eight interceptions in 414 career throws coming into the year, and now he had six in two games.
The second ACL injury has been hard to overcome. His knee is healthy, and he had a full fall camp to practice. He’s not scared or timid in any way, but he hasn’t been completely comfortable either.
That changed last Saturday, when he just relaxed and played at Western Kentucky. He had a career-high 35 completions and threw for 373 yards, his second-highest total ever, topped only by the 491 yards at Ohio State last year. He’s still a very dangerous passer and well prepared for a big stage.
Walk us through the Indiana defense. What are its strengths and weaknesses?
The two linebackers, Micah McFadden and Cam Jones, have played really well. McFadden, an All-American candidate, was ejected on a bogus targeting call just before halftime in the Cincinnati game, and it made a huge difference. Cincinnati had only gained 35 yards in 25 plays before he was lost for the game.
Their two SEC transfers, Ryder Anderson (Ole Miss) and Jaren Handy (Auburn) have been good at pressuring the passer, but the line as a whole has been average at best. They’ll have to be better on Saturday night at Penn State for sure.
Indiana came into the season with a deep and talented secondary, but they’ve had to deal with a lot of injuries. Safety Devon Matthews got hurt early in the Iowa game and missed two-plus games. Cornerback Jaylin Williams, who’s a ball hound, went out of last week’s game with a concussion and is day-to-day. The other corner, Tiawan Mullen, has been great and I’m looking forward to that Mullen-Jahan Dotson matchup on multiple occasions Saturday night.
How will receiver D.J. Matthews' injury impact the Indiana offense?
He had been Indiana’s best player through the first three weeks before tearing an ACL early in the first quarter last week on a non-contact injury.
He’s a terrific slot receiver, and it’s a spot that Indiana takes advantage of often. Whop Philyor was great there the past three years and had a big touchdown last year against Penn State. With Matthews out, Ty Fryfogle will move inside more often now. He had 10 catches last week, mostly out of the slot, including five catches on third down that helped move the chains.
Indiana has plenty of depth in that receivers room, so they should be fine going forward.
Penn State coach James Franklin said after the win over Villanova that his team enjoyed being "patted on the back" too much. Do you sense that happened with the Hoosiers entering this season?
Maybe a little bit. But this is a talented team with high expectations, and that’s not going to change. It’s been a big topic of conversation this week, that lower expectations after two losses isn’t really an option. They still feel like they can go to Penn State and win. They beat the Nittany Lions last year and played them tough a year earlier in Happy Valley.
The naysayers around the country want to say that last year’s 6-1 Big Ten mark was a COVID-infused aberration, but I don’t believe that’s true. This is a good team with talent everywhere. They have not shut the door on this season at all, and they still plan on making some noise along the way. That starts Saturday night.
Check out Hoosiers Now for more Indiana coverage.