Tom Allen didn’t know, but Indiana had just lost perhaps its most important defensive player.
“I was asking, ‘Who’s [the flag] on? Where’d it come from?’” Allen said. “I had no clue. I was very, very frustrated by the information I was getting.”
Micah McFadden and Jaren “Stone” Handy broke through the line to sandwich Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder and force an errant pass. Instead of forcing Cincinnati’s fifth punt of the first half, McFadden was flagged for targeting after his hit on the Heisman candidate Ridder, ejecting the All-American linebacker from the game.
“It was massive, without question,” Allen said. “It changed everything.”
Cincinnati moved the chains for just the third time of the game, but more important was the momentum the Bearcats gained. Indiana led 14-0 and was riding the enthusiasm of a sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium, but there was a different energy after the penalty.
For Indiana linebacker Cam Jones, the penalty took away the counterpart who he said can read his mind. Jones and McFadden have been teammates since their freshman year and have built chemistry that has translated into one of the best defenses in the Big Ten over the past two seasons.
For Allen, Indiana had lost a captain, one who plays a huge role in anything the Hoosiers do defensively. After controlling the game with the strength of its defense, Indiana was forced to adapt.
“We were dominating them to that point,” Allen said. “Dominating them.”
Following McFadden’s ejection, Ridder and the Bearcats took hold of the game. On that drive, Ridder threw for 27 yards and rushed for 10 before capping off the drive with a handoff to Jerome Ford, who punched in Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the game.
Cincinnati took advantage of the 6-foot-2-inch, 232-pound hole left in the middle of the Indiana defense and turned a 14-0 deficit into a 38-24 victory.
While the targeting penalty can be debated without conclusion from the moment the flag was thrown until the final seconds ticked away, the impact of losing McFadden cannot. McFadden has been the heart and soul of Indiana’s defense for over two years, and without him, the Hoosiers went from domination to desperation.
“You lose your captain, that’s tough,” Allen said. “Other guys have got to step up, and to me, that’s how you respond. Sometimes life is not fair.”
Indiana LB Micah McFadden has been ejected for targeting.
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— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 18, 2021
In the second half, McFadden’s absence showed again as Indiana could not find a response to Ridder and the Bearcats. After shutting Cincinnati out for over 25 minutes, the Hoosier defense allowed five touchdowns and a field goal, forcing just one punt the rest of the game.
Ryder Anderson said he hated to see McFadden’s ejection, but Indiana needs to find ways to continue its dominance without their middle linebacker. Anderson said there are no plays Indiana can’t run, defensively, with their backups.
Thomas Allen was called on to fill McFadden’s role, and was flagged for roughing the passer in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati went on to drive 75 yards down the field to take a 30-24 lead. Instead of running into clogged lanes with McFadden, Cincinnati exploited the middle of Indiana’s defense.
While McFadden’s ejection clearly impacted the momentum of the game, it doesn’t encompass the range of problems that led to Indiana’s loss to No. 8 Cincinnati. Michael Penix Jr. threw three interceptions on Saturday, and the Indiana offense came up empty on three trips to the red zone.
With this loss, Indiana falls to 1-2 in a season that began with unprecedented expectations. Both losses have come to teams currently ranked in the top 10, but it’s now clear that the preseason dreams of a Big Ten title were too big for the Hoosiers.
With a full slate of Big Ten games waiting ahead, Allen said it’s now all about how Indiana responds.
“It’s not where anyone expected us to be or wanted to be at this point, but as I said to them. Here we are. What are we going to do? How are you going to respond?”