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Hoosiers’ ceiling significantly lowered with Penix injury, but defense is unwavering

It was the right play, but an outcome Indiana could not afford. 

Michael Penix Jr. decided to keep the ball instead of handing it off, and went scampering down the sideline for an Indiana first down in the third quarter against Maryland on Saturday. Penix read the defense perfectly on this read-option play and was pushed out of bounds inside the Maryland 5-yard line after a 21-yard gain. But something wasn’t right. 

As Penix slowed down, his leg planted awkwardly, and seconds later he pounded on the turf in pain. Head coach Tom Allen did not have many details to share after the game regarding Penix’s injury, but said it’s a lower-leg injury. Allen said the team will have more information Monday.
Indiana was able to overcome the loss of its starting quarterback to defeat Maryland 27-11. Jack Tuttle replaced Penix, and provided poise to an Indiana roster that was visibly distraught on the sidelines following Penix’s injury. 

"Whatever position it is, guys have to step up when called upon,” Allen said.

Tuttle completed all five of his pass attempts for 31 yards. 

"Once Mike went down and Tuttle came in, he was poised and confident,” Indiana running back Stevie Scott said. “He can make a play at any given moment. It's him believing in himself and us believing in him."

While Tuttle kept the Indiana offense on track Saturday, losing Penix for any amount of time could be devastating for an Indiana team with late-season ambition. 

Penix is no stranger to injury. Last season during Indiana’s 34-3 win over Northwestern, Penix suffered a right sternoclavicular joint injury, which forced him to have season-ending shoulder surgery.

During Indiana’s 2018 loss to Penn State, a torn ACL ended Penix’s season. Because of these past injuries, it has seemed this year that offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan has strayed away from using Penix on designed run plays. 

And rightly so. No. 12 Indiana is having one of the best seasons in program history, and Penix is an obvious reason why. Even in a loss to Ohio State, Indiana gained national respect largely due to Penix’s 491-yard, five-touchdown performance. An injury to Penix would be the No. 1 way to derail the season Indiana is having, and that is the reality Indiana now faces.

However, there are pieces on this roster that can keep Indiana competitive. Before his injury, Penix was largely ineffective versus Maryland, and played his worst half of football as a Hoosier. 

"[Penix] just seemed really off,” Allen said. "Don't really know the reason why, for sure, but just missing guys."

Penix’s day ended completing just six of his 19 pass attempts for 84 yards. Thirty-seven of these yards came on an underthrown pass to Miles Marshall, who made an impressive adjustment to the ball to haul it in.

Without Penix, Indiana does not have the star-power to keep pace with teams like Ohio State. But strengths such as Indiana’s secondary have proven to translate no matter the opponent. The Hoosier defensive backs intercepted Taulia Tagovailoa three times Saturday, and now lead the nation in interceptions.

"It's not by chance,” Allen said of Indiana’s ability to create takeaways. “I assure you that. Just watch the film. Talk to the quarterbacks that play us. They'll let you know."

Tight coverage from the secondary has also allowed the Indiana defensive line to take a big step forward this year. Throughout Saturday's game, Tagovailoa was forced to hold the ball for extended periods of time simply because no one was open. 

This allowed the Indiana front seven to get pressure on the quarterback, resulting in three sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Tagovailoa threw 19 incomplete passes, and was rarely able to build consistent drives.

“[Tagovailoa] was a one-read player,” Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen said. “Wherever he looked, that was the way he was gonna throw the ball."

Indiana took another step forward Saturday, establishing a dominant run game for the first time all season. Allen said he was proud of the offensive line’s performance Saturday because a big challenge this week in practice was running the ball effectively.

Scott kept up his red-zone efficiency, scoring three touchdowns on 24 carries for 80 yards. Sampson James was inactive, which allowed for a breakout performance from Tim Baldwin Jr. The freshman carried the ball 16 times and gained 106 yards.

"Stevie, Sampson, and David (Ellis) have helped me a lot,” Baldwin said. “It took me a while to get patience. Shout out to the O-line, they blocked their tails off today." 

Sheridan also added an interesting wrinkle to the Indiana offense, running a number of plays out of the wildcat formation. Scott and Ellis were most prominently featured in this role that Maryland did not see coming. Ellis rushed five times for 21 yards and caught two passes for nine yards. Allen said these direct-snap wildcat plays were installed this week, specifically for this game.

While these numbers don’t jump off the page, adding a level of creativity to an area that had been Indiana’s biggest weakness was a welcome addition. The Hoosiers outgained Maryland 234 to 59 on the ground, which was the largest margin of the season in Indiana’s favor in this category. 

With this win, Indiana moves to 5-1 on the season. This is the first time since 1987-88 that Indiana has posted consecutive winning records in conference play. The Hoosiers have a difficult test next weekend in Madison as a matchup with the No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers awaits. The biggest question mark leading up to this game will be Penix's health. 

Without Penix, Indiana’s ceiling for success is significantly lowered, but do not tell that to the Hoosiers.

"I feel like we're still breaking through," Scott said. "We have to finish the season strong. We've got to keep striving for greatness at the end of the day." 

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