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Injury-riddled Indiana secondary faces challenge against Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati

Charlton Warren has a perspective on No. 8 Cincinnati that nobody else on Indiana's coaching staff has. 

Before Indiana hired Warren to be its defensive coordinator on Jan. 17, Warren was coaching defensive backs for Georgia in the 2021 Peach Bowl against, you guessed it, Cincinnati. Warren and the Bulldogs defeated the Bearcats in a 24-21 thriller, and the insight Warren gained on Cincinnati could benefit the Hoosiers in front of Saturday’s projected sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium.

Bearcat quarterback Desmond Ridder, a bona fide 2021 Heisman candidate, completed 24 of 37 passes against Warren’s former secondary in the Peach Bowl, which resulted in 206 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Warren said it’s hard to trick Ridder, whom he considers one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

Ridder and the Bearcats were undefeated in 2020 until their loss to Georgia on New Year’s Day, but Ridder, along with four of the top five receivers from last year, decided there was more to play for.

“They all came back,” Warren said. “They’re on a mission.” 

Ridder’s 2021 mission began with an 81-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Scott on his first pass attempt of the season. 

The Bearcats have racked up 91 total points in their first two games and could compose the most electrifying offense Indiana will face in 2021. 

After a blowout loss at No. 5 Iowa and a lopsided win over Idaho, it’s hard to say with any certainty which Indiana team will show up on Sept. 18 against Cincinnati. More certain, however, is the threat Ridder possesses in a variety of ways. 

Ridder has guided Cincinnati to a 2-0 start by completing 72 percent of his passes for 538 yards, six touchdowns and one interception to go along with 27 rushing yards and a touchdown. The senior quarterback stands at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and Warren said he has the ability to truly hurt opponents with his arm, legs and brain.

“Definitely a future NFL guy,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “You have that kind of guy leading your team, that's a very good formula for a lot of success.” 

Indiana defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball said when that watching Ridder on film, it looks like each stride takes him five yards up the field because of his combination of height and speed. 

The Bearcats’ signal caller will face an Indiana secondary that has been riddled with injuries through two games. Devon Matthews is questionable for Saturday’s game after being hospitalized with an upper-body injury after Indiana’s 34-6 loss to Iowa. 

Jaylin Williams missed the Idaho game, but Allen said this week that Williams will play against Cincinnati. Chris Keys tore his ACL while replacing Williams against Idaho, which means Noah Pierre’s role will be elevated against the Bearcats. 

“Every year seems like maybe a certain position has a few more challenges than others,” Allen said. “[Defensive back] seems to be our spot for this year.” 

Indiana cornerbacks coach Brandon Shelby said Keys was valuable to Indiana’s depth because of his big body and knowledge of the playbook, but he hopes Pierre’s experience at the husky position will help him transition to cornerback. 

Indiana cornerback Reese Taylor jogs off the field at Kinnick Stadium. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Warren said the depth Indiana has developed in its secondary has allowed for flexibility to overcome the early injuries. He considers Williams, Tiawan Mullen and Reese Taylor as three starters for two cornerback spots.

“A lot of times when the two’s go in it’s a fall off,” Shelby said. “But I feel like with those three, you have three number ones who can go out there and play at a high level.”

Last year, the Indiana defense was known for its ballhawking that led to 17 interceptions, which was the second most in the country. The Hoosiers have yet to intercept a pass in 2021, missing multiple opportunities each game, according to Warren.

Warren said these game-changing plays are important on Saturday not only to slow down Ridder, but to kickstart an Indiana offense that has struggled to find a true rhythm through two weeks. Luckily for Indiana, it returns the kind of experience on the backend of the defense that mirrors the veteran talent on Cincinnati.

Mullen, Williams, Matthews and Taylor all earned Big Ten honors in 2021, and if it weren’t for a season-ending ACL tear, McCrary-Ball could have joined them. McCrary-Ball knows the secondary has left a number of takeaways on the table, but he has learned to keep a level head throughout his six seasons in Bloomington.

For McCrary-Ball, calmness has encompassed areas in which he has grown while a Hoosier. Taking on Indiana’s husky position, a safety-linebacker hybrid, McCrary-Ball said he has learned to understand his emotions – when it’s time to go and when it’s time to listen. He tries to emphasize these lessons for the younger Indiana defensive backs who have stepped in after injuries. 

Marcelino McCrary-Ball is back for his sixth season at Indiana. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

“I see myself and I’m like, ‘Dang, I used to do that my sophomore year,’” McCrary-Ball said. “So I try to urge like, ‘Don’t take the cheese, bro’ or like, ‘Hold your emotions man, people see that. Learn from me.’”

Ridder could turn out to be the most talented quarterback Indiana faces in 2021, which presents quite the challenge for an Indiana secondary that has battled through its fair share of injuries through two weeks. But for Allen, the heart of this team – and where Indiana will win games – is still on the defensive side of the ball. 

“I want the defense to take the game over,” Allen said.

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