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Penix Jr. finds rhythm, defense has statement performance in win over Rutgers

Two negative plays and an incomplete pass. The inaccuracy and slow start on the first drive versus Rutgers on Saturday told the same story as the week one performance for Michael Penix Jr. Next possession, another three and out. Maybe this Indiana offense wasn’t as high-powered as it looks on paper.

Michael Penix during last year’s win over Rutger in Bloomington. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

But one possession in the third quarter showed the true potential of Penix Jr. and this Indiana offense. Following a Rutgers touchdown, Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers took over possession with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Penix Jr. would go on to complete four passes in a row and draw two defensive pass interference calls. A 20-yard catch by Ty Fryfogle and a 17-yard reception from Javon Swinton was capped off by a 2-yard Peyton Hendershot touchdown gave Indiana a 30-15 lead.

Crisp, on-time passes from Penix Jr. made this possession his best of the season. Penix Jr. followed up a 3-for-10 start was followed up by completions on 11 of his next 13 passes. Penix Jr. found his rhythm, and Indiana never looked back, defeating Rutgers 37-21.

“It’s all finally coming together,” Hendershot said. “I feel that this team is very special. If we continue to focus, we will be a very good team.”

Penix Jr. finished the game completing 17 of 26 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Proving to be a threat on the ground yet again, Penix Jr. rushed six times for 20 yards and a touchdown. 

“Just complete execution from the whole offensive side of the ball,” Penix Jr. said. “(Offensive Coordinator Nick) Sheridan called a great game. All we did is have to execute, and that’s what we did today.”

With the win, Indiana moves to 2-0 on the season and claims its first win as a top-20 team since 1988. This is also Indiana’s first 2-0 Big Ten start since 1991. 

A balanced attack and consistent running game helped Penix Jr. settle in Saturday, which wasn’t true of his performance versus Penn State. Penix Jr. reignited his spark with Whop Philyor, connecting on five passes for 137 yards. Fryfogle continued to be a redzone threat, hauling in four catches for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Stevie Scott and Sampson James got the opportunity to showcase the dangerous one-two punch they can be for Indiana, as well. Scott received the majority of the workload again today, rushing 21 times for 81 yards. After just one carry versus Penn State, James was in a more featured role Saturday, finishing with seven carries for 33 yards.

Defense making plays when it counted

A sluggish start to this game put the end result in question after one quarter, but defensive takeaways and an improved Indiana offense left little doubt in the end. 

“We made it harder ourselves than we needed to, but hats off to Rutgers,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “It’s hard to win on the road.”

Besides a sharper-looking Penix Jr., much of Indiana’s success Saturday came because of its defense. A week ago in Indiana’s win over Penn State, timely turnovers were crucial, and the same was true Saturday. Indiana’s defense intercepted Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral three times and constantly applied pressure. 

Perhaps the most important defensive play came with six minutes left in the second quarter when Indiana linebacker Cam Jones came flying towards Vedral to deflect the ball out of his hands. 

The ball popped up into the air and fell gently into the hands of Indiana defensive lineman Jonathan King, who would later be tackled at the Rutgers 6-yard line. Three plays later, the Hoosiers were celebrating a Penix Jr. rushing touchdown to give Indiana its first lead of the game.

“Momentum is a strong thing in a football game” Indiana defensive back Reese Taylor said. “I don’t know how, but it changes the mindset… That hungriness came out.”

From that moment on, Indiana would hold on to the lead for the rest of the game. A main reason the Hoosiers were able to hold off Rutgers was because of defensive execution when it mattered most. Rutgers was an abysmal 3-for-14 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down. 

A week ago versus Penn State, Jamar Johnson and Micah McFadden starred on the defense, but on Saturday Indiana proved that there is plenty of talent left on that side of the ball. Again, Johnson was near the top of the list with six tackles, but cornerback Tiawan Mullen proved he is a First-Team All-Big Ten candidate with 2.5 sacks and five tackles.

“[Mullen] is just somebody that wants to work, and it shows on the field,” Penix Jr. said.

Going into the game, “focus” was Allen’s word of the week. McFadden said after the game that team truly took that message to heart, which showed in the defense’s performance.

Next up for Indiana is a matchup with No. 13 Michigan, who will surely see its ranking fall after losing to 27-24 to Michigan State on Saturday. Michigan defeated Minnesota in its first game, and while it will be coming off a loss, Michigan is a team Indiana has historically struggled against.

The Wolverines have defeated Indiana in 24 straight contests and own a 59-9 record in the history of the matchup. Questions surrounding the recent performances of Michigan quarterback Joe Milton and a loss to Michigan State, who lost to Rutgers, Indiana has a good chance to be favored in this matchup. Allen said he is starting to see the forward momentum this program is building. 

“It’s going to take a lot of leadership from our coaching staff, leaders of our team,” Allen said. “In my mind, we expected to be able to start doing things like this. We’ve been beginning to plant those seeds.”

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My name is Jack Ankony and I am a sophomore from Mount Prospect, Illinois. I am a huge Chicago sports fan who loves to write and talk about sports.

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