As Indiana packs its bags for the first time this season, Hoosier Network staff members Tyler Tachman and Jack Ankony come together to answer some of the biggest questions facing the Hoosiers before they face off against Iowa on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST.
How far can Michael Penix Jr. take the Hoosiers?
Tyler: The biggest question for Michael Penix Jr. entering this season is his ability to stay healthy. He’s endured three consecutive years with season-ending injuries, twice with a torn ACL. When he’s on the field, though, his numbers and, maybe more importantly, his poise have been impressive. Last season he was 5-1 as a starter before getting hurt.
When he arrived at IU, he was regarded more as a dual-threat quarterback and, as a redshirt freshman, he ran for 119 yards. This, however, will likely change this year. Given his injury history, he will need to be much more conservative in his decisions to tuck the football. It also means he will have to be extremely efficient with what he can do: throwing the ball.
"I'm 100 percent confident."
Michael Penix Jr. said he trusts the health of his knee ahead of Indiana's season opener at Iowa. #iufb pic.twitter.com/WtOsmfNHLQ
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) August 30, 2021
The fact is, we haven’t seen Penix at his best on a consistent basis. Last season’s barn burner against Ohio State, where Penix threw for 491 yards and five touchdowns, was certainly a window into his potential. But even the game against Penn State, where Penix was the hero, he was largely inconsistent for the first three quarters.
If Penix can stay healthy and prove his ability to consistently hit his targets, the Hoosiers can go as far as they want.
Jack: Agreed. Without a doubt, the most important thing for Indiana in 2021 is the health of Michael Penix Jr. We saw the Hoosiers win on the road at Wisconsin last year with Jack Tuttle under center, but struggle to generate much offense until the fourth quarter of the Outback Bowl.
It’s clear that Penix takes the Hoosiers to another level. Indiana is 10-2 with Penix as the starting quarterback, a great winning percentage, but playing only 12 games in three seasons also shows his durability issues.
Too often in 2020 was Penix inaccurate during Indiana’s first two or three drives. Now that Indiana has a target on its back as a Big Ten East contender, Penix and the Hoosiers can’t afford those kinds of slow starts. Indiana needs Penix to be healthy and the 21 other starters to play a near perfect game to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten, but it’s not impossible.
Will the defense have a drop off following the departure of defensive coordinator Kane Wommack?
Tyler: As far as we’ve seen and heard, the transition between Wommack and new defensive coordinator Charlton Warren has been rather seamless. Of course, there was a period where Warren and the defensive players had to get used to each other’s styles, but the fact that Warren was already familiar with the 4-2-5 defensive scheme undoubtedly helped.
There is reason to believe that Indiana’s defense, which ranked first in red-zone efficiency last season, can replicate its success. Indiana is only losing two starters: Safety Jamar Johnson and defensive lineman Jerome Johnson (not related). Both were major contributors, but Indiana’s other nine defensive pieces are returning, including All-Americans Micah McFadden and Tiawan Mullen.
If the defense does drop off, it will likely be because Indiana’s defense was so productive last season that it will be difficult to repeat. It will be difficult to replicate the high rate at which they forced turnovers. But with the combination of returning players and newcomers such as Ryder Anderson, Jaren Handy and Weston Kramer on the line, Indiana’s defense can be the backbone of the team again.
Jack: Tyler referenced Warren’s familiarity with Tom Allen’s base 4-2-5 defense, which has allowed for an easy transition. Potential All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen compared Indiana’s defense getting to know Warren like a newborn baby meeting their parents, but this might be underscoring the experience returning on defense.
"It's like a newborn baby with their parent."
Tiawan Mullen said his confidence is at an all-time high as Charlton Warren steps in as Indiana's defensive coordinator. #iufb pic.twitter.com/321wnzQ7Lx
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) August 30, 2021
Losing Jamar Johnson and Jerome Johnson takes away a ballhawking safety and a reliable run-stuffer, but the Hoosiers have reloaded at these spots. Allen added three transfers on the defensive line as Tyler mentioned, and the return of Marcelino McCrary-Ball is a storyline that I think has been under-hyped.
McCrary-Ball figures to slot into Allen’s important husky position, a safety-linebacker hybrid and will be the most experienced player on the field in each game as he begins his sixth season in Bloomington.
I think a bigger question than Warren replacing Wommack is Indiana’s ability to generate turnovers at the same rate. The defense will still be the backbone of any Allen-coached team.
What do you expect to be the offense’s identity this year?
Tyler: Indiana’s running game last season was largely one-dimensional. Stevie Scott was an All-Big Ten performer, power back and trusted to punch it in on the goal line. But he lacked a certain explosiveness and elusiveness. The Hoosiers were just 12th in the conference in yards per game, which can also be attributed to the inconsistency of the offensive line.
This season, however, the running game figures to be more of a weapon. USC transfer Stephen Carr, who will start against Iowa, adds much of what Indiana lacked last season. Plus, Tim Baldwin Jr., who had a breakout game last season against Maryland, adds another dimension to the running back room.
An improved ground attack matters for two reasons. One: it will take pressure off of Penix and allow Indiana to pick the right spots to throw, rather than relying all of the time. Two: The run and pass game obviously play off of each other. If Carr gets the chains moving on the ground, defenses will have to respect that, opening up plenty of opportunities for Penix to toss it long.
— USC Trojans (@USC_Athletics) September 2, 2019
Jack: Like we addressed earlier, the Hoosiers will go as far as Penix can take them. Penix should have the freedom to throw on any down against any opponent with a loaded wide receiver room. Ty Fryfogle returns as the reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year, and he is complemented by Miles Marshall, who has the potential for a breakout season as defenses scheme harder to stop Fryfogle.
Indiana also brought in a pair of transfers from big-time programs in former Florida State Seminole D.J. Matthews and former Texas A&M Aggie Cam’ron Buckley. Jacolby Hewitt and Javon Swinton each caught crucial passes in Indiana’s game-tying drive against Penn State last year and provide nice depth at receiver.
In order for Indiana’s offense to take the next step under second-year coordinator Nick Sheridan, it has to run the ball on a more consistent basis. Stevie Scott left for the NFL and Sampson James transferred to Purdue, leaving USC transfer Stephen Carr as the starter.
Allen has praised Carr’s strength, versatility and work ethic all offseason, and Carr’s prior relationship with running backs coach Deland McCullough should bode for a smooth transition to Indiana’s offense.
How worried are you about the offensive line?
Tyler: IU offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan may have summed it up the best, saying what essentially boiled down to this: Indiana hasn’t played any other competition yet, but all signs point to improvement.
Indiana has experience in returning starters Matthew Bedford and Caleb Jones. Bedford, who’s entering his junior year, talked at length about how he’s become focused in his day-to-day mindset, which will be imperative given he’s protecting Penix’s blind side. Jones has lost about 50 pounds after focusing on his diet and laying off food from his father’s restaurant.
The biggest question marks, though, will be following the losses of Harry Crider and Mackenzie Nworah. Michigan transfer Zach Carpenter moved into Crider’s spot at center. Dylan Powell, who made six starts last season, will slide into the right guard spot.
Jack: You will be hard pressed to find two larger offensive tackles in the Big Ten than Caleb Jones and Matthew Bedford. Jones stands at 6-foot-8 and 362 pounds flanked by Bedford at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds.
Priority No. 1 for the IU offensive line is keeping Michael Penix Jr. on his feet after ACL surgery.
IU returns two of the most physically imposing tackles in the B1G, but what about the rest of the line? #iufb
Previewing the big fellas up front: https://t.co/lMAFVbICkO
— Jack Ankony (@ankony_jack) August 25, 2021
The two are also Indiana’s most experienced linemen, which would lead one to believe that edge rushers will have a more difficult time getting to Penix. But the concern for Indiana’s offensive line is up the middle. Carpenter, the Michigan transfer, projects to immediately start at center.
Mike Katic and Stanford transfer Dylan Powell complete the line at guard and bring playing experience in from a year ago. As Tyler said, it’s tough to completely evaluate whether or not Indiana’s offensive line has improved since last year until they go up against another team.
Keeping Penix healthy is priority No. 1 for Indiana in 2021, but the most questions before the season might stem from the offensive line.
In order to beat Iowa, Indiana needs to _____:
Tyler: Win the battle at the line of scrimmage and force turnovers.
With a physical team like Iowa, the trenches are important as ever. The promising news for Indiana is that Iowa is losing three starters on the defensive line, including 2020 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Daviyon Nixon. This means that Indiana’s offensive line, which has been a point of concern this offseason, will avoid taking on Iowa’s top-tier group from last season.
One of the catalysts for Indiana’s success last season was its ability to force turnovers. Nationally, the Hoosiers were tied for 13th in turnovers gained and tied for 10th in turnover margin. That fact remains an important part of Indiana’s identity this season.
— Tiawan Mullen (@Mullen_7era) December 6, 2020
In Iowa’s two losses last season, the Hawkeyes turned the ball over five times. If Indiana can take the ball away and give extra chances to Penix, it gives them a significant advantage, plus the ability to take the home crowd out of the game.
Jack: Get a stop or score a touchdown on the first possession.
Indiana didn’t play in front of a crowd consisting of more than family and friends until the Outback Bowl, which they lost in front of a majority-Indiana crowd. Expect an absolutely electric Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 4. This Indiana team hasn’t seen that.
It is paramount that Indiana calms down that crowd early on. Think three-and-out. Think 75-yard, six-minute touchdown drive. In a game decided by the line of scrimmage, setting the tone early is crucial.
Outside of a quick start, special teams could play a role in a game in which Iowa is favored by three points. Avoiding mistakes like missed field goals, blocked punts, botched snaps, etc, is easier said than done, but important in a game that should come down to the wire.
A win against Iowa would mean ____ for Indiana this season?
There are unprecedented expectations for Indiana entering this season. In the first two games, the trajectory of Indiana’s season, and its ability to live up those expectations, will be put to the test. First, it will be with Iowa. Then at home against Cincinnati in two weeks.
For Indiana to gain significant momentum heading into the bulk of the conference season, the Hoosiers likely need to win at least one of those two games. If Indiana can knock off Iowa on the road, it will continue to validate the Hoosiers’ emergence into national relevancy and the upward trend of the program.
Full @IndianaFootball #B1GMediaDays interviews ➡️ https://t.co/PymVeazi6i pic.twitter.com/9mAtSFLVVX
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) July 23, 2021
Tom Allen and the Hoosiers haven’t been afraid to discuss their desire and potential ability to win the Big Ten all offseason. It’s easy to buy into the ultra-charismatic Allen when hearing him speak, but bowl losses in two straight seasons leaves bits of doubt lingering.
Like Tyler said, a 1-1 record against Iowa and Cincinnati is nothing to be ashamed of. In reality, Indiana fans should take a split against Iowa and Cincinnati all day long when looking at the big picture.
Allen said this week that a road matchup with a ranked opponent provides a greater sense of urgency than beginning the season with a mid-major team. But the question is whether or not Indiana, which failed to beat a team with a record above .500 last season, can back up its lofty expectations.