Devon Matthews spent the weekend in an Iowa City hospital. Chris Keys tore his ACL against Idaho. Jaylin Williams entered concussion protocol after Indiana’s win over Western Kentucky.
When asked to clarify who the next man up in Indiana’s secondary would be, defensive coordinator Charlton Warren couldn’t help but reach for comedic relief.
“You got anybody in mind?” Warren said.
Warren trains Indiana’s defensive backs to play multiple positions, which has eased the blow of weekly injuries to the secondary. But this group still hasn’t faced its biggest challenge of the season: a trip to Happy Valley against No. 4 Penn State, yes, but also lining up against one of the top receivers in the nation, Jahan Dotson.
Dotson has racked up 27 catches for 362 yards while reaching the endzone once in all four games. Dotson’s 27 catches lead all Big Ten receivers and rank 11th in the country. Through four games, he hasn’t dropped a pass.
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 25, 2021
Dotson was named to the All-Big Ten third team in 2020 while earning honorable mention for All-American honors. Indiana fans might remember him burning the Hoosier secondary with a 60-yard touchdown to give Penn State a 21-20 lead with 2:30 left in last year’s game.
Dotson’s constant threat to create explosive plays sets up a must-see matchup with Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who just played his best game of the season against Western Kentucky, according to both Warren and Tom Allen.
“I hope [Mullen] gets up for this one for sure,” Indiana cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby said. “I think, ultimately, it’s in his blood. It’s in his family.”
Warren said a lot of defensive backs can make plays on balls down the field, but Mullen’s lockdown nature on throws between zero and 16 yards make him an elite player. While Warren and Allen praised the junior defensive back, Mullen has come to expect this out of himself.
“When the plays came my way I made it like usual,” Mullen said. “My team looks forward to me making big plays.”
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) August 12, 2021
Indiana’s secondary went all game against Western Kentucky without a pass interference penalty or defensive holding. For Warren, this means the defensive backs were playing with exceptional technique, especially when it felt like the Hilltoppers looked to pass on every down.
Western Kentucky constantly challenged the Hoosiers with an uptempo offense, which Mullen combatted with a small detail. Mullen recognized that the Hilltoppers’ big plays were coming when Indiana’s secondary was looking in the backfield. It sounds simple, but Mullen told his teammates to keep their eyes on the man they’re defending, not the backfield.
“When they went to that formation real fast, I was just on my guy, focused,” Mullen said. “And when the play came my way, I made it.”
Indiana still allowed 31 points against Western Kentucky, which Mullen said means room for improvement. Shelby noted a 30-yard completion where Reese Taylor got burnt because of poor body positioning as a teaching moment.
“In a game like this week, that’s a touchdown. We ain’t catching Dotson,” Shelby said. “So those are things you show them on film and they’re like, ‘I touched a hot stove and got lucky.’”
Shelby said he thought Mullen was pressing the first few weeks, and Saturday was the first time he felt relaxed. Mullen will look to build on this performance, but defending Dotson and the Nittany Lions will test the Hoosiers’ depth.
Noah Pierre could see his role expanded on Saturday as Jaylin Williams is sidelined with a concussion. Shelby called Pierre a “switchblade” because of his experience at safety, cornerback and nickel. Pierre attends Shelby’s meetings with the cornerbacks, as well as Jason Jones’ safety meetings, which has allowed him to learn the defensive checks at each position.
Shelby recruited Pierre out of Champagnat High School in Hialeah, Florida, a school that produced 2021 first-round pick Gregory Rousseau. Shelby was immediately impressed by Pierre’s physicality at a high school that produces Division I talent each year.
— Christopher Fodde (@ChrisFodde) September 16, 2017
But Shelby was convinced Pierre would fit at Indiana when he stepped into a house filled with Pierre’s family members during a recruiting visit.
“When you care about your family at home, a lot of times you care about your team here,” Shelby said. “He’s done that since he’s been here.”
A night game at Beaver Stadium is a daunting environment to come into as a player with little experience, but Shelby has reminded the secondary that this is what they have all worked for.
“I look at it as this is what you prayed about as a little boy,” Shelby said. “This is what you watched growing up. Penn State, seven o’clock at night rocking and rolling. So when my number is called, it’s a great opportunity for me to show the world I’m here. To show my family that all the sacrifice paid off.”