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Roundtable discussion: Indiana searches for validation, offensive spark against No. 8 Cincinnati

After two completely opposite results in weeks one and two from the Hoosiers, it’s tough to determine which Indiana team we will see on Sept. 18 against No. 8 Cincinnati.

The Hoosier Network’s football crew Griffin Gonzalez, Jack Ankony and Tyler Tachman break down the most pressing questions ahead of Saturday’s noon kickoff with the Bearcats.

Indiana scored 56 points against Idaho, but Michael Penix Jr. threw for just 68 yards. What needs to happen in order for us to see the 2020 version of Penix?

Michael Penix, Jr. watches from the sideline during Indiana's loss to Iowa on Sept. 4, 2021 in Iowa City. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Jack: It all starts with more aggressive play calling from Nick Sheridan. I think there is merit to the argument that Indiana didn’t want to reveal its full playbook against Idaho and that the Iowa game was over after the first three minutes. But Saturday is the game where you let it fly. Indiana needs to be able to throw it deep in order to hang with Cincinnati’s potent offense. 

Tyler: Get into a rhythm early with short passes and then, as Jack said, let it fly deep. Overall, Penix Jr. hasn’t really looked fully composed in the pocket. The offensive line, which hasn’t been consistent this season and allowed two sacks during one drive against Idaho, can help Penix Jr.'s comfortability by ensuring he has enough time to go through his progressions.

Cincinnati is quarterbacked by Heisman candidate Desmond Ridder. What can the Indiana defense do to slow him down?

Jack: At 6-foot-4, Ridder covers a ton of ground with each stride. He can beat you with his feet, through the air and with his brain. I think this is a game where the emergence of Ole Miss transfer Ryder Anderson will be especially important. Anderson’s ability to pressure Ridder when he drops back to pass and also secure the edge when Ridder wants to run will be crucial to Indiana’s defensive effort. 

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

Tyler: Indiana used exotic blitz schemes to create havoc and lead the Big Ten in forced turnovers last season. Indiana needs to use disguises and send linebackers/defensive backs on blitzes to confuse Ridder. Having versatile positions like the Bull and Husky that can drop into coverage or rush will allow Indiana to keep Ridder guessing.

How much of an impact can Indiana’s special teams unit have against Cincinnati after a big performance against Idaho?

Tyler: Indiana’s special teams can be its X-factor, especially if its offense isn’t playing well. Last season, the Hoosiers’ defense frequently set up its offense by creating takeaways, something that special teams can add to now. It also serves as a great way to get the crowd into the game and swing momentum.

Jack: Tom Allen is in every special teams meeting because he knows how much a blocked punt or kick return touchdown can change the game. We haven’t seen Indiana’s offense perform at a high level too often in 2021, so long punt returns from D.J. Matthews could help jumpstart the Hoosier offense.

Which Hoosier are you picking to be the X-factor against Cincinnati?

Jack: Micah McFadden. He’s the heart and soul of Indiana’s defense. The Hoosiers have talked all week about the importance of defensive communication when facing a quarterback like Ridder, and that starts with McFadden at middle linebacker. The Hoosiers need to be on the same page defensively when facing a quarterback like Ridder who can run or pass on any given down.

Wide receiver D.J. Matthews of the Indiana Hoosiers during fall camp at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, IN. Photo by Gracie Farrall/Indiana Athletics

Tyler: D.J. Matthews. Indiana hasn’t gotten much production from its receivers yet this season, partly due to the underwhelming performances of Penix Jr. Matthews is a dynamic athlete with elite speed who can open up the field for the Hoosiers. Get him the ball in space and let him make plays.

A win over Cincinnati on Saturday would mean __?

Tyler: Validation that Indiana is a top-25 team. It’s still difficult to precisely gauge where this team is at. The only top competition Indiana has played ended in a blowout. Then the Hoosiers dominated Idaho, but given that the Vandals are an FCS team, that outcome was expected. Saturday’s game will be telling if Indiana can compete, and win, against a top-25 team. If not, it will be difficult to argue Indiana has the capabilities of competing for a Big Ten title.

Jack: The blowout loss at No. 5 Iowa is basically forgiven. A 1-1 record against two top-10 opponents in the first three weeks of the season should make all Indiana fans smile. A win over Cincinnati would quickly make people forget about the embarrassing performance in week one. And, not to get too ahead of myself, but after an Ohio State loss last week, Indiana would be right back in the thick of things in the Big Ten East. 

A loss to Cincinnati, making Indiana 1-2 on the season, would mean __?

Jack: A big missed opportunity. We just talked about how much a win would turn Indiana’s season around, and while losing to Cincinnati wouldn’t be classified as a “bad loss,” it could come with a lot of pessimism surrounding the rest of the season if Indiana doesn’t compete well. It’s not a panic-inducing loss, but it would certainly tear down some of Indiana’s lofty preseason goals. 

Tyler: There would be significant concern for the prospects of Indiana’s season given the strength of its remaining schedule. A win against Western Kentucky the following week should be a lock, but that’s the only momentum the Hoosiers would have before they travel to Penn State. If the offense doesn’t play well again, more questions will arise about Nick Sheridan and Mike Penix Jr. 

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