Standing behind the podium on Monday morning, Indiana head coach Tom Allen pulled off his crimson hat and peered at the white lettering.
“Let me check something first here,” Allen said, turning the hat so he could see the front. “Make sure Indiana is spelled right.”
Allen was referring to what had become a viral moment before Saturday’s game against Iowa, when a photographer caught the front of freshman David Holloman’s jersey, which read: “Indinia.” This was the first of many indications that Saturday wouldn’t, in fact, be Indiana’s day. The Hoosiers went on to be thumped by Iowa, 34-6.
For the time being, the loss somewhat tempered the viability of Indiana’s lofty expectations, at least from the perspective outside of the program. On one hand, it was just Indiana’s first game and in a tough, road environment. On the other hand, there was also never a question of who deserved to win the game, and there certainly was no shortage of potential long-term problems, especially on offense.
“You’ve got to be able to look yourself in the mirror,” Allen said. “And you’ve got to be able to make honest assessments and evaluations, and you’ve got to go fix them.”
Much of Indiana’s season will be defined by how the Hoosiers respond. Given the tough Big Ten schedule they have to face, there will surely be peaks and valleys throughout the season. Indiana’s next test comes Saturday against Idaho, although it may be difficult to sufficiently gauge the team’s potential improvement given the Hoosiers should be able to handle that matchup with little difficulty.
The question for Indiana now becomes whether the game against Iowa was an outlier or if it will become the norm. The epitome of this pendulum is quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who had arguably one of the worst games of his career from an efficiency standpoint.
Penix Jr., who is coming off of his third consecutive season-ending injury, has shown flashes of his potential, like when he threw for almost 500 yards against Ohio State last season.
But it remains to be seen if he can do that consistently. It may be somewhat glossed over how much of a challenge it is not only physically but also mentally to return from those injuries. Penix Jr. speaks in the type of coach-speak cliches, saying that he felt prepared mentally and physically, although it didn’t necessarily appear that way against Iowa.
“I can only imagine… what that would’ve been like for a 21-year-old kid,” IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said about Penix Jr.’s adverse career. “I’m proud of him for that. I really am.”
“Just poor execution…”
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) September 5, 2021
Penix Jr., who entered last season coming off of a serious shoulder injury, also started off slowly against Penn State, before the unforgettable finish and eventually finding his groove the rest of the season. It remains unknown if this is just the beginning of his valiant return, which is certainly possible, or if all of the physical and mental challenges he’s faced will ultimately overtake his career.
“I’m just going to continue to keep pushing forward,” Penix Jr. said. “I know that the team has my back. They continue to stay positive.”
It didn’t help that two of Indiana’s expected starters on the offensive line, Luke Haggard and center Zach Carpenter, were unable to play against Iowa. Haggard was “dinged up,” as Allen said, and Allen didn’t delve into further detail about Carpenter. The result was an underwhelming running game and constant pressure on Penix Jr., adding to the concern surrounding the offensive line entering the season.
“We’re definitely looking at all options at that point,” Allen said. “Whoever those best five are, whatever combination it is, we’re going to figure it out… Just watching the film, we just didn’t block good enough. We didn’t sustain our blocks.”
Beyond the broader aspects, Indiana didn’t do the little things well. Allen wasn’t pleased with some of the kick off coverages, especially early in the game. Freshman punter James Evans, a New Zealand native who had never played in a game or environment like Saturday, booted four punts in the first half for an average of only 34.5 yards.
“We tried everything we could to simulate the game situation, live situation, both the crowd noise and pressure,” Allen said. “..He didn’t respond as well initially but then calmed down and did a better job.”
Indiana was also whistled for seven penalties for 66 yards, including two false starts from Caleb Jones, which set back an already struggling offense. In the second half, before a Charles Campbell field goal attempt, a lineman ran onto the field late, causing a delay of game penalty. Despite being moved back five yards, Campbell made it anyway, but it meant little at that point.
The loss to Iowa doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean Indiana can’t have a successful season, and the team is still optimistic. It does, however, raise some plausible worry. The consensus throughout Sheridan’s answers was that he didn’t coach well enough. That, along with Indiana’s other troubles, needs to be fixed with considerable urgency.
“The clock’s ticking,” Allen said.