Tom Allen likes to keep a routine.
His team will stay in the same hotel it did two years before in College Park, Maryland. It will keep the same schedule it uses for all of its road trips.
And as has become routine for IU in the second half of the season this decade, bowl eligibility is on the line, and IU has to prove itself.
After scoring four predictable wins and taking two predicable losses, IU finds itself at a point in the schedule where the games suddenly become evenly matched. It is a stretch in the schedule where IU proves if the dominant wins over weaker opponents is closer to reality, or if the blowout loss to Ohio State is.
Maryland is the first in that stretch of games.
The Terps are 3-3, a very inconsistent 3-3. They, like the Hoosiers, have not yet proven what the real rendition of their team is.
“I don’t know if Maryland knows what the real Maryland team is, and coach Mike Locksley expressed as much in his Wednesday press conference,” The Diamondback sports editor Andy Kostka wrote in an email. “The issue so far has been consistency — putting up 79 points in its season opener, then managing all of 128 yards and zero points against Penn State. Two vastly different opponents in terms of quality level, but a rather concerning variation in output.”
Maryland blew past Howard and a then-ranked Syracuse team before being crushed at home by Penn State and on the road by a Purdue team without its starting QB and Rondale Moore.
Purdue’s battered offense crushed against a Maryland defense that is allowing nearly 400 yards per game. It’s a struggling unit that IU matches up quite well against.
“A slew of missed tackles allowed the Boilermakers plenty of yards after the catch,” Kostka said. “If Maryland is going to allow catches, it’s imperative to not allow it to turn into a big gainer through missed tackles. Teams have been going with short options more recently after seeing Jon Hoke’s defense put up impressive stat numbers through the first two weeks, and that’s seemingly an effective way to go through this Maryland defense.”
Kostka added that Maryland’s defense has had success when the pass rush gets home. It’s a case where something has to give going up against an IU offensive line that has allowed the fewest sacks per game in the Big Ten. The offensive line hasn’t struggled despite injuries.
Fifth-year center Hunter Littlejohn will be a game-time decision. Allen mentioned the option of either sliding Charlie O’Connor in at center, or moving Harry Crider to center and adding a guard.
O’Connor took over when Littlejohn left against Rutgers, and was a part of the offensive line as it finally found success in the running game.
Whether or not Littlejohn plays, if the offensive line finds success, so will IU’s offense. Give Penix time, and he’ll keep up the hot start he’s had to his career as a starter.
But there are questions on defense.
Maybe not the questions that have surrounded the defense in weeks prior, but questions about who it will be facing. Maryland could be without both quarterback Josh Jackson and running back Anthony McFarland. McFarland torched IU last season with over 200 yards.
If neither play, IU’s load on defense suddenly lessens. It’s a group entering College Park brimming with momentum and confidence after holding Rutgers to just one passing yard. If Maryland is without two of its top playmakers, IU may find it easier to carry that over into Saturday.
“Of course, Maryland has — or had — a deep running back room,” Kostka said. “Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis are the last two fully healthy ball carriers, and both are plenty capable to break off long runs. McFarland was a strong interior runner, too, and was preferred in short-yardage attempts.
“There could be more designed runs for (quarterback Tyrrell) Pigrome, who has good speed and ran in a 61-yard bootleg touchdown against Purdue. Without Jackson, though, the passing game seems to take a bit of a hit. Pigrome had a very costly pick-6 right before halftime last weekend and threw another interception later in the game. The Terps can win without McFarland and Jackson, but it’ll take a better defensive performance and some big plays to do so.”
Through six games, IU has shown sides taken in the right direction. It’s proved that it has its quarterback for the long term and playmakers around him. The last three games have changed the ideology surrounding the program, that this is the team that will break through in a bowl game.
It can prove that with a win on the road, in the first game where the result wasn’t clear to predict before the opening kickoff.