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'Next man up' mentality fuels crucial performances from young receivers

Trailing by eight points with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. looked to a freshman wide receiver to save the game.

Javon Swinton hauled in two crucial catches for 23 yards on consecutive plays as the Hoosiers breached Penn State territory and eventually drove to score and force overtime in Saturday's 36-35 win over the No. 8 Nittany Lions.

The Indiana offense huddles up before a snap against Penn State. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

“I felt like it was a make-or-break moment when I got the chance to make my play,” Swinton said. “So like I said, it was a dream come true for me honestly.”

It may have been a name that Indiana fans were unfamiliar with, but not Penix.

"I said it in the (press) conference last week," Penix said. "I said there's gonna be some young receivers that step up and Javon [Swinton] and Jacolby Hewitt were two guys I mentioned. I knew those guys were gonna have to come out on game day and have to make plays, and that's what they did.”

Hewitt, a redshirt sophomore from Cordova, Tennessee, followed Swinton’s lead and made a huge catch of his own, this one for 14 yards to get IU into the red zone on the overtime-forcing drive. The two young receivers stepped up in a pressing moment of the game when Indiana needed them the most.

'Stay ready so you don't have to get ready'

David Ellis was ruled out before the game with a lower leg injury, and fellow receiver Miles Marshall left mid-game due to concussion protocol. Because of this, Swinton and Hewitt were thrust into a larger role, but did not crack under pressure.

“We live by our motto ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Swinton said. “When one man goes down, it is just next man up. That’s just how football is.”

Swinton’s name has come up numerous times in preseason press conferences, and proved in Saturday’s game why the coaching staff is so excited about him. 

Swinton is a 6-foot-2 freshman out of Stafford, Virginia. As a senior in high school, Swinton totaled 48 catches for 858 yards and 13 touchdowns. Recruited as an athlete, Swinton also played defense before coming to Indiana, making 46 tackles, two interceptions, seven pass breakups and one forced fumble his senior year.

Head coach Tom Allen said that although Swinton played just nine snaps Saturday, he had two of the biggest catches of the game. For offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, this performance showed that Swinton is ready to carve out a role in Indiana’s offense.

"Now we get to coach them even harder,” Sheridan said. “Now we get to push them even more."

While Swinton and Hewitt first made a name for themselves in Saturday’s win, their relationship began before Swinton even committed to Indiana. Hewitt was the host player on Swinton’s official visit to Bloomington during his recruitment. Ever since then, Swinton said the two have had a tight relationship.

“[Hewitt] has been my boy,” Swinton said. “He always looks out for me like I look out for him. That’s like my brother. Even though we are competing, we are both supporting each other. We know both of us have to step up so it’s more of just like a support thing for each other.”

Whop Philyor, the leader of the WR crew, gets ready to go before taking on No. 8 Penn State. (Kurt Spitler/HN)

Swinton said the flow of the game is starting to slow down as he and Hewitt gain more experience in the Indiana offense. Playing on a big stage against Penn State in his first collegiate game might seem like a big jump for Swinton, but he said he has been determined to get on the field since his first day on the team. 

“I didn’t want to be one that just sat on the bench,” Swinton said. “I know the quicker you learn the playbook the better chance you have to get on the field. It was more of just determination and the grind to get better and learn.”

Time to get better

As the Hoosiers approach a matchup with Rutgers on Saturday, Swinton knows it will be a tough challenge. Indiana will need a stronger overall performance from Penix versus Rutgers, and Swinton knows chemistry is a big factor in the offense improving as a whole. 

Swinton said he and the other receivers on the team have been staying after practice to get more reps in with Penix in order to build this chemistry.

“(We're) just getting our chemistry and timing down so he knows where we are going to be and we know where he’s going to put the ball every time,” Swinton said. “It’s just going to get better for us.”

In the week leading up to Indiana’s game versus Rutgers, Swinton said the team has ramped up the intensity in practice. The Scarlet Knights defeated Michigan State 38-27 this past Saturday, and are a team Indiana cannot overlook.

“Trying not to live off one big win,” Swinton said. “We are just going even harder knowing that we didn’t play our best football game on Saturday versus Penn State. Just cleaning up all of the errors so that we can be the best possible team that we know we can be.”

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