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Tom Allen, Indiana football prepared to take on lofty expectations

For the past two seasons, there have been expectations, although somewhat cautious, for Indiana football to win. It’s a product of this: 14 wins over the past two seasons, and a magnetic culture led by head coach Tom Allen, who has taken a historically poor program to new heights.

This season, however, is different. Not only are there expectations to win, but also a sense of optimism that Indiana could challenge powerhouse Ohio State in the Big Ten East and be in the running for a conference title.

Much of those lofty expectations are due to Indiana’s breakthrough onto the national stage last season. There was Michael Penix Jr.’s iconic reach to upset Penn State. There was a defeat of Michigan for the first time since 1987. Later, the Hoosiers nearly pulled off an upset on the road against Ohio State.

Still, at least outside the program, there was a sense of hesitancy surrounding Indiana’s rise. It was a season riddled by COVID-19, where, in some ways, winning was a matter of staying healthy. And, as a whole, the Big Ten East was historically bad.

This season, though, is a chance for Allen and Indiana to prove that they are here to stay, something they’ll have to do with more of a spotlight on them. It will start with a significant challenge at No. 18 Iowa on Saturday.

“We came here with a vision to be able to change the expectations and create belief,” Allen said. “That process is ongoing and so we're embracing it. But you gotta be able to have those ear muffs and blinders. That part doesn't change, and to be able to create the focus that you want to be able to be an elite performer on game day.”

Indiana’s ability to perform up to expectations, and the storyline that has dominated the offseason, is largely reliant on the health of Penix Jr., who tore his ACL against Maryland last fall after quickly making a name for himself nationally.

On Monday, Allen said Penix Jr. will be the starter against Iowa. The question now becomes, whether Penix Jr., who has suffered three season-ending injuries, can remain on the field for the entirety of the season.

“I trust my knee,” Penix Jr. said Monday. “I trust that everything is OK.”

There are a variety of weapons at Penix Jr.’s disposal, headlined by Third-Team All-American receiver Ty Fryfogle, who decided to return to Indiana after a breakout campaign last season. Junior wide receiver Miles Marshall is expected to make a leap from last season. D.J. Matthews, a lightning-quick transfer from Florida State, and tight end Peyton Hendershot, who’s looking to bounce back from an underwhelming junior season, will both likely play roles in the receiving game.

USC transfer Stephen Carr will get the start in the backfield on Saturday and figures to add more versatility to IU’s run game than the past few seasons with Stevie Scott, who was a power runner but lacked a dynamic element.

“From day one, he came here with zero entitlement at all,” Allen said of Carr. “He had to earn the spot, ready to work, total team guy. Not just in his words, his words definitely were that way, but his actions.”

Indiana’s defense, though, is the team’s backbone, just as it was last season. It starts with a talented and experienced secondary, led by All-American Tiawan Mullen, who’s backed by Reese Taylor, Jaylin Williams, Devon Matthews and Raheem Layne.

The linebacking corps, which has as much talent and experience as the secondary, is spearheaded by All-Big Ten seniors Micah McFadden and Cam Jones. Plus, Marcelino McCrary-Ball, who suffered a torn ACL prior to last season, is a physical presence at the Husky position and unwavering leader.

Besides the health of Penix Jr., the biggest concern for Indiana entering this season, and likely the one aspect holding the team back, is the play of its offensive and defensive lines.

On the defensive side, Jerome Johnson, Indiana’s most productive player on the line, decided to pursue a professional career. Returners Demarcus Elliott and Sio Nofoagatoto’a, along with Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson, figure to fill Johnson’s void.

The offensive line, which lost two starters from last season, gave up the least amount of sacks in the Big Ten last season, but the Hoosiers were also 12th in the conference in rushing yards per game.

That said, the coaching staff has been pleased with the group’s development. Indiana has veterans in Caleb Jones, Matthew Bedford and Dylan Powell. They also added Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter, who will start at center.

“We’ll find out in the run game when we go up against a perennial top-10 running defense in the country,” IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said. “Talk is cheap right now as far as the progress we’ve made. Certainly after the game, we’ll get a much better sense for where we stand.”

The first look at how these varying pieces fit together will be on Saturday. Over the summer and into the fall, there has been no indication that Allen, or the program, is slowing down from the momentum they’ve built. But this season will be telling of whether Indiana has what it takes to remain at the top.

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