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What To Watch For: Hoosiers set to face toughest defense yet in Tuttle's first start

Indiana lost starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to a torn ACL last week, and will need to rally together as a tough opponent awaits. The Hoosiers travel to Madison, Wisconsin for a 3:30 p.m. ET matchup with the No. 16 Badgers on Dec. 5.

Tom Allen leads the Hoosiers onto the field last year against Penn State. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

Likely because of Indiana’s new face at quarterback in Jack Tuttle, Indiana enters this game as 14-point underdogs. Wisconsin is 2-1 after a number of cancellations due to COVID-19, but dominated Illinois 45-7 and Michigan 49-11. Most recently, the Badgers fell to Northwestern 17-7 in a pivotal Big Ten West matchup.

Wisconsin should be fresh after not playing since Nov. 21, but have little tape on Tuttle going into this game. Indiana can clinch at least a second-place finish in the Big Ten East with a win over Wisconsin. Let’s get into the major storylines heading into another top-25 matchup for the Hoosiers. 

A step up defensively

Last week versus Maryland, Indiana took advantage of one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten. The Terrapins ranked last or 13th in the conference in all yards per game categories before the matchup and did nothing to improve their status.

Indiana’s offensive line has been the biggest question mark on this team in 2020, but showed it can at least succeed against the bottom feeders of Big Ten defensive statistics. The Hoosiers rushed 48 times for 234 yards and three touchdowns. 

This marked Indiana’s most successful ground game of the season, but a much more stout opponent lies ahead on Saturday. While Wisconsin has played fewer games than any other Big Ten team, it ranks first in fewest yards allowed per game on the ground and through the air.

Wisconsin is allowing just 67.3 rushing yards and 166 passing yards per game, both of which are at least 30 yards fewer than the second best team. Jack Sanborn is the leader of the Badger defense at linebacker and has 20 tackles and one sack in 2020. 

Sanborn teams up with CJ Goetz and Nick Herbig at linebacker, who form one of the best linebacking corps in the conference. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand have been Wisconsin’s standout defensive ends, who compose a front seven that has been very difficult to run on.

The Indiana offensive line will need to continue to improve if the Hoosiers hope to have any luck running the ball. And with Tuttle starting for the first time in his college career, Indiana cannot become one-dimensional.

Listen to "Indiana Football Podcast: Previewing Wisconsin with The Badger Herald's Will Whitmore" on Spreaker.

Young talent with experienced weapons

Wisconsin freshman quarterback Graham Mertz caught the eyes of the college football world in week one of the Big Ten season in his nearly-perfect performance. Against Illinois, Mertz completed 20 of his 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns.

But after feasting on a subpar Illinois defense, things have gotten more difficult for Mertz. While Wisconsin blew out Michigan, Mertz didn’t play particularly well, completing 12 of 22 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. 

Mertz avoided interceptions in his first two starts, it was a different story versus an impressive Northwestern defense. Mertz was intercepted three times versus the Wildcats and was 23-for-41 on pass attempts, which was good for 230 yards and one touchdown. 

Mertz has been able to ease into his first year playing college football with a plethora of experienced receivers and running backs at his disposal. Mertz’s favorite target has been junior tight end Jake Ferguson, who leads the team with 18 receptions and 181 yards and four touchdowns.

Senior running back Garrett Groshek is used more in the passing game than the run, and is second on the team with eight receptions. On the outside Mertz has formed a connection with a pair of senior receivers in Jack Dunn and Kendric Pryor, who rank third and fourth in catches.

After losing Jonathan Taylor to the NFL Draft, the Badgers are more inexperienced at running back. Freshman Jalen Berger and sophomore Nakia Watson are the team’s leading rushers, but have one of the best, most experienced offensive lines in the Big Ten to run behind. 

Indiana head coach Tom Allen said each part of the team will need to improve to make up for the loss of Penix. While Indiana’s defense has willed the Hoosiers to victory this season, it might take the group’s best performance of the season Saturday to come out on top. 

The pressure isn't just on Tuttle 

Even before Penix left the game with an injury versus Maryland, the Indiana offense did not look great. Penix and receivers Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor formed one of the most productive trios in the Big Ten through five games, but seemed out of sync versus the Terrapins.

And with a new quarterback under center, even more pressure is put on the rest of the offense to perform. Maryland had one of the worst pass defenses in the conference, but was able to shut down Fryfogle and Philyor.

Against Wisconsin, this cannot happen. Fryfogle became the first Big Ten player to record back-to-back 200-yard receiving performances, and Philyor hasn’t skipped a beat since last year, even with the emergence of Fryfogle. 

But against Maryland, Fryfogle was limited to two catches for 10 yards and Philyor caught two passes for 24 yards. Peyton Hendershot also hauled in two passes and went for 22 yards.

Tuttle seemed to like Hendershot as a red-zone target, as he delivered a confident strike to the junior tight end to convert a two-point play. Tuttle completed all five passes for 31 yards against Maryland, and will need to continue this accuracy versus Wisconsin.

Yes, Tuttle will need to play well and limit turnovers, but it will be important for Indiana’s experienced skill players to take a big step forward from their Maryland performances this week.

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