From the opening kickoff at Kinnick Stadium, there was little question that Iowa was, by far, the better team on the field on Saturday afternoon. The result was an emphatic 34-6 win for the Hawkeyes. On the flip side, it was a game that couldn’t have gone much worse for the Hoosiers.
With the embarrassing loss behind them, the more pressing concern for Indiana is what exactly comes next.
After Indiana broke through onto the national stage last season, there have been unprecedented expectations for the Hoosiers this year, including an optimism that they could win a Big Ten Title. Indiana’s ability to successfully deal with that pressure has been a pertinent storyline. This season has become a viable chance for Indiana to prove they can sustain national relevancy.
And Saturday was an opportunity for Indiana to make a resounding statement, playing in a daunting environment against a No. 18 Hawkeyes team. A win certainly would’ve validated all of the momentum Allen has built the last few seasons.
Instead, it was an uninspiring performance. Broadening the scope to the rest of the season, there are more questions than answers for Indiana after Saturday’s result. A majority of Indiana’s concerns entering the season still remain and are potentially even more pressing.
“Just got behind early and momentum got away from us,” Allen said. “Just making mistakes, we can’t do that. We talked about that so many times with this team. They (Iowa) don’t make very many (mistakes) and we knew we couldn’t make very many. We did and they didn’t.”
Indiana’s potential success this season largely revolves around the play of quarterback Michael Penix Jr, who is coming off a torn ACL last season and a third consecutive season-ending injury. There has been uncertainty as to whether Penix Jr. will ever reach his full potential after flashing it at times last season, but not on a consistent basis.
On Saturday, Penix Jr. never looked like he was comfortable. On Indiana’s first drive, he tossed a pick six. He then threw two more interceptions before halftime, including another that Iowa’s defense took back for a touchdown. He finished the game throwing 14-for-29 for just 156 yards and was never consistently on the same page with his receivers.
There was also considerable apprehension regarding Penix Jr.’s mobility after returning from his injury. On two occasions in the first half, Penix misfired badly as he rolled out of the pocket. Also, in a questionable play call, Penix Jr. kept the ball on a read option but, upon realizing he had nowhere to go, slid down for a loss.
“Nothing felt off, I just feel like we didn’t execute like we needed to,” Penix Jr. said. “Obviously, the turnovers killed us.”
It has also been a point of emphasis for Indiana to have a more dynamic running attack after ranking 12th in Big Ten in yards per game last season. Allen and the coaching staff have spoken highly of USC transfer Stephen Carr, who has the potential to bolster the run game along with sophomore Tim Baldwin Jr. and take some pressure off Penix Jr.
But on Saturday, Indiana’s ground game was underwhelming. Carr ran for 57 yards on 19 carries. Baldwin Jr., who lost some playing time to reserves Chris Childers and Davion Ervin-Poindexter, had 12 yards on six carries.
It was also a product of Indiana’s offensive line, who was largely dominated at point of attack. After having mixed results last season and losing two starters, Indiana’s ability to both protect Penix Jr. and open up holes for its running backs has been a necessary improvement, but one that wasn’t evident Saturday. Plus, offensive lineman Caleb Jones committed a couple of untimely penalties in the first half, including two false starts.
“I thought they didn’t play as well as I expected them to,” Allen of the offensive line. “They’re better to me than they showed. I know they are. I’ve seen it. I expect it. Not good enough.”
Indiana has the talent around Penix Jr. to be successful, but it’s a matter of when, or if, they can all put it together. Can Ty Fryfogle be relied upon as the featured receiver? Can Miles Marshall, who has all the measurables, take a step up and be a trusted target? Can Florida State wide receiver transfer D.J. Matthews be the spark plug to replace Whop Philyor? Can tight end Peyton Hendershot bounce back after underwhelming production last season?
On Saturday, the answer was largely no. Fryfogle had five catches for 84 yards. Hendershot, Matthews and Marshall combined for six catches. There was also a lack of creativity in the game planning.
“We were sloppy,” Fryfogle said. “We could have gotten more open. There’s a lot of things that we could’ve done differently.”
“Offense is really really disappointing for me.”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) September 5, 2021
Maybe the most promising part of Indiana’s performance on Saturday was its defense, although it didn’t come without flaws. The Hoosiers’ ability to force turnovers, which was their biggest strength last season, took the ball away from Iowa twice. Still, Indiana’s defense still gave up 158 rushing yards and caught some breaks thanks to Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras’ overall inefficiency.
The Hoosiers have a matchup against Idaho next week, which needs to be a win, before they host Cincinnati in a sold-out showdown in Memorial Stadium. For Indiana to recapture some momentum and potentially live up the season’s high expectations, the game against Cincinnati now becomes all the more important.
Some of those questions need to be answered and, for Indiana, it needs to happen rather quickly.
“We’re going to keep our head up and keep pushing,” Penix Jr. said. “Just keeping that mindset to where nothing can stop us.”