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Defense, special teams lead Indiana to victory over Idaho

Idaho quarterback Mike Beaudry didn’t have more than a few seconds before he found himself in an unfavorable situation.

It started with a stunt on Indiana’s defensive line. As the ball was snapped, Ryder Anderson, who was playing at end, crisscrossed toward the interior, while Weston Kramer, who started on the inside, surged forward. It caused some confusion on the Idaho offensive line, allowing linebacker Micah McFadden to fly untouched into the backfield.

Anderson and McFadden closed in on Beaudry at nearly the exact same time, engulfing him to the turf as the ball popped out. Kramer, who stayed with the play, bounced on the pigskin.

Cam Jones and Marcelino McCrary-Ball make a tackle against Idaho. (Bailey Wright/HN)

With the Hoosiers leading by seven near the end of the first quarter, the takeaway set Indiana up at the Idaho 13-yard line. Two plays later, Indiana punched it in for a touchdown.

This allowed Indiana to pull away early: defense and special teams setting the offense up for success, which became integral given Indiana's inconsistency on offense. It resulted in 56-14 Indiana victory at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.

It was also an important response for Indiana coming off of a disappointing loss to Iowa last week. Although it wasn’t perfect, Indiana’s win was convincing. More importantly, it gave the Hoosiers some much-needed momentum heading into the matchup with Cincinnati next week.

"Just to be able to bounce back from that (Iowa), to regroup and address some things that we needed to address going into the week," IU head coach Tom Allen said. "I thought our guys responded by having a really good week of practice and they showed that in their performance and the way they started."

With the Hoosiers up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, Indiana’s special teams made their first big play of the game.

Idaho was punting from deep in its own territory when Noah Pierre broke through the line, diving forward and swatting the punt toward the turf. In one motion, wide receiver Javon Swinton, who was suspended for Indiana’s opener against Iowa, scooped up the ball and trotted into the endzone for a touchdown. Indiana’s lead extended to 21-0.

That, however, wasn’t the end of Indiana’s impressive special teams' performance. By the end of the first half, with Indiana leading 28-0, Idaho was again punting from its own zone. This time the punter got the kick out, but Indiana made Idaho pay in a different way.

DJ Matthews, Indiana’s dynamic wide receiver and punt return transfer from Florida State, backpedaled to his own 20-yard line, where he caught the ball over his shoulder. He made his way to the far side, before planting his left foot and cutting upfield. He then tiptoed down the sideline, shaking off a defender with a stiff arm as he glided in for a touchdown.

"I was feeling it at the end," Matthews said of his 81-yard return. "My legs got tired on me."

With Indiana leading 35-0, the game, at that point, was all but over, mostly thanks to Indiana's defense and special teams. The contest marked the first time that Indiana had scored multiple special teams touchdowns since 1969. 

To add to the special teams' effort, tight end AJ Barner blocked another punt in the fourth quarter, which set up a touchdown run by Davion Ervin-Poindexter, although the game was already out of hand. If Indiana’s special teams unit can continue to perform at the level it did Saturday, it will give the Hoosiers an undeniable boost, which will become especially important in closely contested games.

"A huge emphasis is special teams," Allen said. "I'm in every single meeting and that's on purpose. I want our guys to know how important they are... The challenge was, let's go make those game-changing plays. We've been solid the last few years, but I said, ‘No it's time to help us go win a game.’”

Ryder Anderson had four tackles against Idaho. (Bailey Wright/HN)

In all, Indiana’s defense was phenomenal, with the exception of a couple of drives. At the end of the first quarter, Idaho’s offense had gained a total of six yards. The Vandals finished the game with 261 yards, including just 65 on the ground.

Indiana had balanced production across its defense. Tiawan Mullen led the way with nine tackles. Cam Jones and Marcelino McCrary-Ball added five each. Anderson had four. 

The Hoosiers also addressed an issue that IU defensive coordinator Charlton Warren outlined during the week: limiting big plays. Against Iowa, Indiana gave up a 56-yard touchdown run, a play that Warren called a “catastrophic” play. On Saturday, Idaho recorded just three plays of 20 yards or more.

"It's a credit to our DBs on the back end, just staying over top of things," McFadden said. "It's just communication. Being on the same page."

It was also further affirmation that Indiana’s defense has the potential to be the backbone of the team, as it was last season. It’s a necessary trait given the overall unreliability of the offense, with Michael Penix Jr. and the offensive line still figuring out a rhythm. Forcing turnovers, arguably IU’s biggest strength last season, has also been evident again, with the Hoosiers recording three in the first two games.

"The defensive guys," Allen said. "I expect them to set the tone for each game."

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