Josh Sanguinetti was draped over Tre Mosley’s shoulder, keeping his eyes up. The pass from MSU quarterback Payton Thorne deflected off Mosley’s chest and popped in the air, allowing Sanguinetti to snatch the ball.
For a moment, Indiana was back to forcing timely turnovers to kickstart the offense. It’s how the Hoosiers won games in 2020, and it’s what’s been missing in 2021.
The Hoosiers get the pick!@IndianaFootball isn't making it easy on Michigan State today pic.twitter.com/Bqm5s9YBdP
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 16, 2021
But just five plays later, Jack Tuttle was hit as he threw, and the ball floated directly into MSU defensive back Darius Snow’s hands. Thorne then found Tyler Hunt wide open in the end zone to give Michigan State a 17-9 lead shortly after.
All momentum was lost, a crucial turnover was wasted. Indiana’s defense did enough to win the game, but the same can’t be said offensively. The defense constantly gifted Tuttle and the offense with opportunities to comeback and win, but with each gift came offensive letdown in Indiana’s 20-15 loss to Michigan State.
“[The defense] did everything we asked them to do except maybe score,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said.
Facing third down and two with nine minutes left in the game, the Indiana defense came up with a stop vital to its hopes of mounting a comeback. Thorne tried to escape the Indiana pass rush, but was instead tracked down for a loss of three yards. The Spartans were forced to kick a field goal, keeping Indiana’s deficit at just one possession.
But after two Tuttle incompletions and a one-yard run from Stephen Carr, the Hoosiers were forced to punt again.
On the ensuing Michigan State drive, Micah McFadden sprinted from the hash mark to the sideline in relentless pursuit of Thorne on third down, sacking the Spartan signal caller for a four-yard loss.
Tuttle and the offense were given another opportunity to mount a comeback, but failed to reach midfield. The Indiana offensive line was fooled by a corner blitz from Chester Kimbrough, who sprinted off the edge untouched. Tuttle had nowhere to go as Kimbrough stripped the ball and pounced on top.
Michigan State took over in the Indiana red zone and Thorne took a shot at the end zone, looking for the dagger. Thorne’s pass was instead intercepted by Noah Pierre, and once again, the defense contributed all it could to Indiana’s comeback efforts.
Payton Thorne is intercepted by Noah Pierre!!
Pierre, a junior, has been having the game of his life today. That's the first pick of his career.pic.twitter.com/Cm1UC78cXe
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) October 16, 2021
But the Hoosiers’ offense netted just six yards in its last gasp. There would be no more timely turnovers from its ballhawking secondary or tackles for loss from McFadden. Indiana’s defense did all it could, but was hung out to dry by the offense.
Looking at Michigan State’s offensive production, one might have thought Indiana won by multiple scores. Indiana outgained Michigan State by 62 yards through the air and 34 yards on the ground.
“It means we should win the game,” Indiana running back Stephen Carr said.
Defensive coordinator Charlton Warren schemed to shut down the nation’s leading rusher Kenneth Walker III, and for the majority of the afternoon, it worked. Walker finished the game with 23 carries for 84 yards.
Entering today’s contest, Walker rushed for over 125 yards in three games. Last week, he carved through the Rutgers defense for 233 yards and a touchdown.
“I watched [Walker] on film for six straight weeks making everyone miss,” Allen said. “[We were] keeping him hemmed in and did not let him get outside in space.”
Nine of Walker’s yards came on the first two plays of the opening drive, but McFadden burst through the line on third down to force a punt. McFadden set the tone with this run-stuffing blitz and anchored an Indiana defense that held Walker to his second lowest rushing total of the season. McFadden racked up nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass break up.
It'll be fun to watch Micah McFadden vs. Kenneth Walker III today. pic.twitter.com/AptHPHMK9j
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) October 16, 2021
What made Indiana’s defensive performance even more impressive was that All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen was sidelined the entire game and Reese Taylor sat out after one drive. Without its two starting cornerbacks, Indiana forced Thorne to his worst completion percentage of the season. Thorne finished the day completing 14 of 26 passes for 126 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Our eyes were in the right place at the right time,” Indiana safety Devon “Monster” Matthews said.
Pierre and Sanguinetti stepped up in replacement and impressed the captain of their defense. McFadden said Pierre hasn’t played cornerback at all in his time at Indiana, but plays competitively no matter where he’s positioned on the field.
Thorne and the Spartans attacked Pierre constantly on Saturday, but Pierre was largely up for the challenge. He finished the day with a team-high nine tackles to go with a tackle for loss, interception and a pass breakup.
It was an intriguing sign for Indiana to succeed defensively without its top two corners, but these performances were put to waste as Indiana could only muster 15 points.
The Hoosiers now move to 2-4 on the season with each of its losses coming against top-10 opponents. Things won’t get any easier for Indiana as No. 6 Ohio State comes to town next weekend, followed by road trips to Maryland and No. 8 Michigan.
A season with unprecedented expectations has now turned into desperation as Indiana needs to win four of its next six games to become bowl eligible. Allen said Indiana’s locker room was hurting after the loss to Michigan State, but he knows they won’t quit.
“By the look in their eye,” Allen said. “I can tell they’re going to stay together and keep fighting.”