MADISON, Wis. — Indiana and Wisconsin punted more times than they scored Saturday. But that doesn’t matter to Tom Allen and the Hoosiers. Allen has preached a 1-0 mindset before each game this season, and that is all that mattered Saturday.
“Indiana is tough,” Jack Tuttle said. “Plain in simple we’re just tough…Every single guy on this team fights, and will never stop fighting. That’s the message we sent today.”
Saturday’s 14-6 Indiana win was an old-fashioned, grind-it-out Big Ten football game. Through one quarter, both teams punted on each possession. And then, with 51 seconds left in the first quarter, Kane Wommack decided to dial up Tiawan Mullen’s number.
We’ve seen Mullen succeed at the corner blitz other times this year, but this bone-rattling sack on Graham Mertz might have been his best one yet.
“It sounded like a gunshot on the field for sure,” Micah McFadden said.
Stop us if you’ve heard it before: The @IndianaFootball D will turn you over.
Well, it just did it again. ? pic.twitter.com/Ole9wYlMtp
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 5, 2020
It forced the football to pop out of Mertz’s hands, and Indiana recovered it.
“I knew I was going to get one going into this game,” Mullen said. “I knew he didn’t see me, and I knew I had a clean shot. I wanted to get the ball out for the offense to go down and score.”
It took nearly a minute for the officials to determine that Indiana had recovered the ball, as the ball could have switched hands multiple times with both teams fighting in the dog pile. But this play defined the kind of football game Indiana won Saturday. Tough, hard-nosed, and yes, as Allen says at nearly every press conference, gritty.
“A lot of times, to the fan that’s not as exciting to watch,” McFadden said. “As a defensive player that’s real fun… It’s man-on-man football, that’s where we’re at. We like that.”
Following this turnover, Tuttle marched Indiana down the field on his best drive of his college career. Tuttle completed four of six pass attempts, and capped the drive off with a perfectly-placed ball to Hendershot for a touchdown to go up 7-0.
Without starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Indiana had to adjust the style of football it played, but really didn’t skip a beat.
“Most people wrote us off because we lost Michael Penix, a tremendous player,” Allen said. “We are a football team. That team showed up tonight.”
With Tuttle under center, the Indiana offense wasn’t quite as explosive as it has been with Penix, but it didn’t need to be Saturday. Wisconsin actually outgained Indiana on offense 342 to 217.
Tuttle completed 13 of his 22 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. In his first collegiate start, Tuttle led Indiana into Camp Randall Stadium to claim a 14-6 victory. With this win, Indiana moves to 6-1 on the season and clinches a second place finish in the Big Ten East.
“We just keep checking off historical wins,” Allen said. “This team just keeps fighting.”
— Holly Rowe (@sportsiren) December 6, 2020
The Hoosiers ran out of the tunnel with the same confidence and swagger they portrayed in big wins over Rutgers, Michigan State and Maryland. And if you didn’t know that it was Tuttle’s first start of the season, you surely wouldn’t have been able to tell based on his composure and leadership qualities.
This belief, coupled with strong play from the run game and a stellar defensive performance, helped Indiana accomplish things that would have been unheard of against Wisconsin before the season.
Wisconsin was allowing roughly 30 yards fewer on the ground than any other Big Ten defense before this game, and Hoosiers eclipsed this average by 20 yards. Indiana’s offensive line and run game have been the Hoosiers’ biggest area of concern this year, which makes it even more impressive that they were able to succeed against the statistically-best run defense in the conference.
Over the past two weeks, Indiana has become more creative with the run game, which is a reason for its success. Indiana has shied away from straight runs up the middle with Stevie Scott, and has incorporated more outside runs, direct snaps and a variety of backs.
Indiana’s 87 rushing yards don’t jump off the page, but is impressive because of Indiana’s past offensive line struggles and Wisconsin’s shut-down run defense this season. It also allowed offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan to keep the Wisconsin defense guessing and not play one-dimensional football.
Scott rushed 18 times for 57 yards and David Ellis rushed five times for 22 yards. Going into this game, Tuttle wanted to keep his own running game a secret, but was productive Saturday rushing six times for 11 yards, including a crucial quarterback sneak on a key third down.
The Hoosiers also benefited from offensive tackle Caleb Jones returning to the lineup. Jones started at right tackle Saturday after playing left tackle every other game this season due to Tuttle being right-handed and Penix being left-handed.
Indiana’s running game has really grown over the past two games, but one constant has remained all year long: the Indiana swarm defense, as defensive coordinator Kane Wommack calls it.
“All the credit to Kane and his staff,” Allen said. “I don’t tell him what to call during the game. I never liked it when I was in that position.”
Indiana forced two turnovers Saturday — the Mullen sack-fumble and a Jamar Johnson interception. Heading into the game, the Hoosiers led the nation with 16 interceptions, and now have 20 total takeaways on the season.
The biggest flaw of Indiana’s defense has been allowing big-play penalties such as roughing the passer and pass interference, but was nearly flawless in this respect Saturday. On defense, the Hoosiers’ only penalty was a 15-yard pass interference call on Jaylin Williams.
Indiana’s secondary also kept Mertz uncomfortable for most of the game. Mertz completed just 20 of his 34 passes for 202 yards and one interception.
“Our defense always shows up,” Mullen said. “We don’t turn it off for anybody. It’s on for everybody and anybody.”
The most important defensive stop of the day came on Wisconsin’s final drive of the game. On first down, Micah McFadden went down, grabbed his leg in pain and was checked on by the Indiana medical staff.
It was a loss Indiana couldn’t afford, as he has served as Indiana’s defensive anchor this season. But McFadden shook it off and returned to the field the very next play.
Mertz looked to catch the Indiana defense sleeping with a draw up the middle on second down, but McFadden crushed him. He was clearly fine. He defines what grit means for Indiana.
“I stayed alive and spun off a block and [Mertz] was right there,” McFadden said.
This forced a third-and-10 situation, followed by fourth-and-10, which allowed Indiana’s secondary to play its game. Indiana only rushed four men, which allowed the Indiana defense to play to its biggest strength.
The Hoosiers locked in and forced incomplete passes on both plays. And after a few kneel-downs from Tuttle, he looked up to the sky to celebrate his first collegiate win as a starting quarterback.
“It feels amazing,” Tuttle said. “So happy for this team. There’s things we need to fix, but right now, it feels great.”
This win was different than any of Indiana’s previous wins in 2020, but was also the most impressive. Before this game, Indiana’s best win was a 24-0 blowout of Michigan State, which does not wow any of the top-25 voters, College Football Playoff ranking committee or bowl-game schedulers.
“Coach, this is what I told you we were gunna do.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) November 3, 2019
It was an important win because Indiana proved it doesn’t need Penix to compete with the top teams in the conference. Allen said before the game that football is the greatest team sport and that every aspect of the team needed to improve by one percent. It’s safe to say Indiana answered the call.
“When you ask what looks like a team win in our program,” Allen said. “I’m going to point to this.”