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Roundtable preview: Hoosiers, Nittany Lions square off under the lights

Indiana hung on for a 33-31 win over Western Kentucky on the road last week and now prepares for what could be its toughest game of the season. The Hoosiers are slated for a primetime matchup in Happy Valley against No. 4 Penn State.

Michael Penix Jr. played perhaps his sharpest game of the season against Western Kentucky and looks to build off that performance. The Hoosier Network’s football crew Griffin Gonzalez, Jack Ankony and Tyler Tachman break down some of the biggest questions for Indiana before its trip to Penn State.

D.J. Matthews tore his ACL on a punt return against Western Kentucky and is out for the season. How can Indiana replace his production?

Griffin: We said it coming into the year that the Indiana receiving room was arguably the deepest of any on its roster. That being said, replacing one of their top receivers won’t be easy, but they can do it. Look for Miles Marshall and Jacolby Hewitt to take the next step. 

Jack: Indiana doesn’t have a singular receiver with the speed and quickness of D.J. Matthews, so I think it will be a combination. Javon Swinton is listed as a starter on this week’s depth chart and has made plays in big games before. Many thought this would be a breakout season for Miles Marshall, so Matthews’ injury could allow for more targets to Marshall. 

Tyler: Coaches have been talking about Marshall’s potential since his high school days. But in a little more than two seasons at Indiana, he’s been largely inconsistent. He has all the measurables to be a great receiver in the Big Ten, and now is his time to step up. Also, look out for Hewitt, who has shown flashes of explosiveness this season.

Michael Penix Jr. rebounded from three interceptions against Cincinnati by having a clean game against Western Kentucky, throwing for 373 yards. Will we continue to see an improved version of Penix?

Jack: We’ve said it over and over this year, but it’s all about confidence for Penix. The arm talent and strength are still there, and while he might be less mobile than last season, it was intriguing to see him roll out and complete passes against Western Kentucky. We are slowly seeing Penix become more comfortable and confident in the pocket as the season progresses. Penn State was the game that made Penix famous last year, so maybe there’s something about this matchup. 

Tyler: Penix has looked much more like himself the last two weeks. His improvement against Cincinnati was largely overshadowed by his three interceptions, although he made many promising throws, especially down field. Against Western Kentucky, he eliminated those giveaways and it seemed like he was finally getting into a rhythm. To continue that, I think it’ll be key for him to keep spreading the ball around to as many targets as possible. 

Griffin: It would be nice. I think Penix is truly a special talent, but the offensive line issues and drops from receivers haven’t really helped his campaign for the best quarterback in the Big Ten. If Penix can get back to playing confident football and do enough to help Indiana move the ball consistently, it could be enough. 

Indiana has dealt with a slew of injuries to its secondary, the most recent being a concussion to Jaylin Williams who is questionable for Saturday. Which defensive back needs to step up against Penn State?

Tyler: Reese Taylor and Williams have both been regulars this season across from Tiawan Mullen. Taylor has an interesting story: he was a quarterback in high school before transitioning to defense at IU, where he’s become a multi-year starter in the secondary. With Williams out, Taylor will be relied on even more. Besides him, look for Larry Tracy as someone to get increased time on the field and add some depth.

Reese Taylor against Cincinnati. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Griffin: All of them. Penn State has one of the most dangerous quarterback and wide receiver combos in the country. For Indiana, slowing them down is the only change they have at winning. The odds of Indiana winning this game rest on the shoulders of the Hoosier secondary.

Jack: Indiana faces one of the top receivers in the country this weekend in Jahan Dotson, who will likely matchup against Tiawan Mullen. If Indiana has any chance of winning this game, it needs a lockdown performance from Mullen to force Penn State to use other weapons. In terms of depth, coaches have talked highly of Noah Pierre this week, and we saw Josh Sanguinetti step up when Devon Matthews was injured against Iowa. 

Penn State is known for having one of the loudest stadiums in college football, similar to Indiana’s week one opponent, Iowa. How can the Hoosiers avoid letting the crowd take over the game early on?

Griffin: The best way to beat a loud crowd is play boring football: sustain long drives, create first downs, ground-and-pound offense. This is the style Indiana needs to play to beat Penn State. By forcing three and outs and sustaining long drives, Indiana can keep the crowd out of the game to a certain degree. 

Jack: If Penn State scores on its first possession, we could see a similar outcome to the Iowa game. It will be crucial for Indiana to either get a stop on defense right away or have a prolonged drive on offense to settle down the Penn State crowd. The experience of playing at Iowa in week one could benefit Indiana and make crowd noise less of a factor. 

Tyler: At various points this season, Indiana’s special teams have either been really great or really bad. We saw what blocked punts and  touchdown returns can do in terms of momentum. I think that Indiana’s special teams can be the X-factor in this game. If they can make big plays, it can help silent the crowd and take pressure off Indiana’s offense.

Fourth-ranked Penn State is favored by 12.5 points on Saturday, which means Indiana could drop to 2-3 on the season. What would a win or loss to Penn State mean for the the Hoosiers’ big picture?

Jack: After beating Penn State last year, there was some optimism before this season that Indiana could take down the Nittany Lions. Indiana hasn’t lived up to expectations this year, and another loss seems overwhelmingly probable this week. Losing to the No. 4 team on the road doesn’t necessarily hurt Indiana, but the Hoosiers have very few surefire wins the rest of the way. 

Indiana scores a touchdown against Cincinnati. (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Tyler: There is a long road ahead for Indiana after this game. A win would allow the Hoosiers to regain a lot of the momentum they lost in the first three weeks of the season. A loss, however, means that Indiana could end up spiraling 2-5 in the next few weeks with Michigan State and Ohio State, two very talented teams, coming to Bloomington.

Griffin: I think a win would put Indiana back into the college football elite conversation for 2021. Indiana would love to have a win at Penn State because it would greatly change the trajectory of the season, but a loss doesn’t put the Hoosiers in the grave quite yet. 

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