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It only took seven minutes for Indiana to turn a three-point lead into an 11-point deficit in the third quarter against Maryland on Oct. 30.
After a long-awaited 66-yard touchdown burst from Stephen Carr, Indiana’s defense gave up touchdown drives of 75 and 67 yards on the following two possessions. Indiana had no answer for Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who picked apart the Hoosier defense for a career-high 419 passing yards.
After shuffling through four quarterbacks and waiting seven weeks for Indiana’s offense to figure things out, surprisingly, it’s been the defense that has let Indiana down lately. The unit that Indiana once leaned on to win games has taken a sharp, downhill turn in recent weeks.
It was once easy to pin a tough schedule as the overwhelming reason for Indiana’s struggles, but impactful adjustments have been hard to come by through eight games. Allowing 54 points to Ohio State and 38 at Maryland has moved Indiana’s defense to dead last in the Big Ten in points allowed at 31.6 per game.
The career day from Tagovailoa slid the Hoosiers further down the Big Ten defensive passing ranks, coming in at No. 13 this week. Indiana’s sixth-ranked run defense in the Big Ten has kept the Hoosiers afloat, but is not enough to overcome big-picture struggles.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Indiana's overall defense ranks 87th in the nation. PFF slots the Hoosiers at 92nd in the country in terms of defensive pass coverage.
On a more positive note, Indiana's run defense ranks 46th, according to PFF, which is reflected by a tackling grade that ranks 23rd in the country. But the Hoosiers are hardly getting any pressure on the quarterback in 2021, coming in at 118th in the nation.
And if Indiana hopes to keep its bowl chances alive, it will need the defense to rise to the occasion in a big way as the Hoosiers travel to The Big House to take on No. 9 Michigan. The Wolverines enter this game with the top rushing offense in the Big Ten, gaining 239.9 yards per game with 25 total touchdowns.
Michigan utilizes a two-back set – Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum – that keeps the run game fresh and dangerous deep into games. Haskins and Corum have each found the end zone 10 times this season, combining for 1,435 rushing yards.
“You’ve got to have set edges,” Indiana defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said. “You’ve got to keep the ball in between defenders, and you have to swarm it with effort and energy on every play.”
Haskins has a slight edge over Corum in rush attempts and yards per carry, but the duo tends to split carries evenly each game. And if last week’s loss to Michigan State was any indication, the way to beat the Wolverines is to stop the ground attack.
In Michigan’s 37-33 loss to Michigan State, Haskins carried the ball 14 times for 59 yards, and Corum was close behind with 13 carries for 45 yards. Both tailbacks were kept out of the end zone in the Wolverines’ first loss of the season.
Warren said Indiana will face the tremendous challenge of stuffing the middle against Michigan’s gap schemes while also containing the edge when the Wolverines run off tackle. For Warren, communication is always paramount, but it’s been emphasized even more this week.
Michigan’s offense is scoring at the second-highest rate among Big Ten teams at 37.1 points per game and poses a threat in more ways than just the run game. Warren said Michigan utilizes a variety of different formations, as well as a “two-headed monster” at quarterback.
Cade McNamara starts under center and is more of a traditional passer, but Michigan also has packages for backup quarterback J.J. McCarthy, who threatens defenses with his legs. This dynamic will force Indiana to adapt on the fly against the various ways Michigan moves the ball, offensively.
And with just four games left in the regular season and a 2-6 record, Indiana has reached the literal must-win phase of the season. If it wishes to play in a bowl game for the third consecutive season and fourth time under Tom Allen, the Hoosiers will need to close the season with four consecutive wins.
Freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley rolled out to his right, looking to deliver a deep ball. His first and second options were both covered down the field, but his best option stood nine yards past the line of scrimmage.
McCulley reset his feet and connected with the wide-open Peyton Hendershot, who turned on the jets and dived for the pylon. Hendershot would come up a yard short, but set Indiana up for its first touchdown of the afternoon.
And with this reception and run after the catch, Hendershot became Indiana’s all-time leader in receiving yards among tight ends with 1,383, passing Ted Bolser’s mark set from 2010 to 2013. Hendershot’s 125 receptions are also a program high, which he set on Oct. 23 against Ohio State.
Hendershot said he texted offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan after the Ohio State game, thanking Sheridan for the opportunities he provides Hendershot in Indiana’s offense. With five seasons of college football experience, Hendershot said he stresses making the most of every opportunity to Indiana’s younger tight ends.
“You believe it and you envision it in your mind,” Hendershot said. “But when it finally starts to come to fruition, it’s eye-opening.”
Despite a 38-35 loss on Saturday at Maryland, Hendershot had a monster day in McCulley’s first collegiate start. McCulley found his reliable target early and often, leading to six catches, 106 yards and two touchdowns — all team-high numbers — for Hendershot. The redshirt senior tight end’s 14 career touchdowns are also nearing an Indiana record, trailing Bolser by one score.
“This is a Big Ten program and my name is going to be on there forever,” Hendershot said. “It’s very fulfilling. I’m very happy, very blessed and I would choose to become an Indiana Hoosier every single time.”
Going into the game, Hendershot said Indiana focused on making McCulley as comfortable as possible. The Hoosiers trailed Maryland 35-20 with just under 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Saturday, but it was the McCulley-to-Hendershot connection that ignited an Indiana comeback.
On second down from the Maryland 18-yard line, McCulley floated a pass to the corner of the end zone. Hendershot broke past the secondary, slid towards the corner and hung on for the touchdown to make it a one-possession game.
“[McCulley] is just a ball player,” Hendershot said. “He makes plays and can scramble. I trust him. I tell him everyday, ‘Trust in yourself, we all trust in you and believe in you.’”
After allowing a field goal, Indiana regained possession with 1:20 left, trailing by 10 points. McCulley looked for Hendershot, but was hit after the pass, resulting in a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty. McCulley found Ty Fryfogle for a 52-yard gain on the next play, and the Hoosiers threatened a comeback yet again.
Hendershot caught McCulley’s pass on a 5-yard out route, but still had a defender to beat. Hendershot lowered his shoulder, powered through a Maryland defender and lunged forward for his second touchdown of the game.
Indiana ultimately came up short after failing to recover an onside kick, and fell to 2-6 on the season. The Hoosiers have come up well short of expectations in 2021, but McCulley and Hendershot’s quick-developing chemistry on Saturday provided a bright spot moving forward.
“We didn’t lay down,” Hendershot said. “We came back and fought.”
Before the Maryland game, Indiana tight ends coach Kevin Wright said that Hendershot has uplifted his game by becoming a dangerous runner after the catch. This has allowed Indiana to use Hendershot not only in the intermediate passing game, but through screens and deep passes down the middle.
Indiana’s 2021 campaign has quickly turned into a massive disappointment due to injuries, turnovers and a difficult schedule, but McCulley showed hints of promise for the future. The freshman completed 14 of 25 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns and claimed Hendershot as his new favorite target moving forward.
“Especially after last year,” Hendershot said. “Just coming back and proving that I’m that type of player and that no matter what defense I play against I can get open.”
Indiana lost more than just another game last Saturday in its 54-7 loss to Ohio State in the rain. Jack Tuttle went down with a foot injury and is week-to-week moving forward, leaving freshman Donaven McCulley and walk-on Grant Gremel as Indiana’s top quarterback options.
No one expected Indiana to start the season with a 2-5 record, but that’s the reality as the Hoosiers head to Maryland for a noon matchup on Saturday. Indiana will now need to win four of its next five games to become bowl eligible. The Hoosier Network’s football crew Jack Ankony, Tyler Tachman and William McDermott answered the biggest questions for Indiana in this week’s roundtable preview.
Indiana’s offense begged for a big play as it huddled on the sideline.
“You’re going to have to show me something,” wide receiver DJ Matthews told third-string running back Chris Childers.
It was early in the second quarter of Indiana's game against Michigan State, and the Hoosiers were trailing 7-6 — but still hoping for a signature win over the No. 10 Spartans. The team needed a spark, and despite having only seven carries on the season, Childers was ready to seize the opportunity.
“I’m going to show you,” Childers responded to Matthews.
On the first play of the drive on Indiana’s 22-yard line, Tuttle took the shotgun snap and stuck the ball in Childers’ stomach. Childers waited patiently for tight end Peyton Hendershot to pull across the offensive line, put his hand on Hendershot’s back, then burst through the hole for a 25-yard gain.
“You can never go wrong following Peyton Hendershot,” Childers said.
Indiana’s offensive struggles have been no secret in 2021. Through seven games, Indiana ranks 121st out of 130 teams in total offense. Even after Childers’ run, Indiana would settle for its third field goal in as many trips to the red zone — contributing to its 92nd national rank in red zone offense.
But Childers’ scamper impressed Indiana head coach Tom Allen. At 5.7 yards per carry, Allen knows Childers will make the most of his limited touches.
"It's awesome to see a guy like that be able to come here and buy in and work hard and believe in himself,” Allen said.
While Childers sits third on the depth chart behind Stephen Carr and Davion Ervin-Poindexter, he has begun to carve out a necessary role in Indiana’s offense. Running backs coach Deland McCullough said Childers was trending up on the depth chart even before the transfers of Sampson James and Tim Baldwin Jr. and the season-ending injury to David Ellis.
Childers combines strength and speed, built from his days as a multi-sport athlete in high school, and prides himself on the ability to pick up blitzes in the backfield. He transferred to Indiana after appearing in 19 games at Indiana State, but his football talents aren't the only intriguing thing about him -- Childers has his eyes on the stars.
“I just wanted to prove that I’m a Big Ten running back,” Childers said. “I’ve been doing that.”
TreVeyon Henderson stumbled in the open field, but still beat the Indiana secondary to the pylon. That was his first touchdown.
On Ohio State’s following drive, the Buckeye offensive line escorted Henderson down the field on a screen pass. Henderson broke a tackle, planted his foot to make a cut that fooled Indiana’s defense and ran over three Hoosiers at the goal line. That was his second endzone appearance.
The Buckeye tailback added a receiving touchdown to his stat line before the night was over, carving the Indiana defense with a video game-like performance. Henderson finished the night with 95 total yards in a 54-7 blowout win at Memorial Stadium.
“It was ugly,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “That’s the best way to describe it.”
What made Henderson’s performance even more impressive was that it happened on just nine carries and one reception. Ohio State didn’t have to work to establish a running game across handfuls of carries each drive. The ground game was established from the first snap as Henderson and the Buckeyes made quick work of the Hoosiers.
“We couldn’t really get our feet on the ground early,” Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden said.
Indiana has leaned on its defense to stay in games, but against the nation’s top offense, that was impossible. With 1:25 remaining in the first quarter, Ohio State led 14-7. The Hoosiers were still in the game according to the scoreboard, but it was clear they couldn’t hang with Ohio State without a strong defensive performance.
The Buckeyes scored four touchdowns and added a safety on a mishandled punt attempt by Indiana, exploding for a 30-point second quarter. Ohio State balanced chunk runs from Henderson with pinpoint accuracy from quarterback C.J. Stroud – who finished with a 201.9 quarterback rating – thanks to an offensive line filled with future NFL talent.
Indiana’s front seven has been its biggest strength in 2021, but the likes of Ryder Anderson, Weston Kramer and Demarcus Elliot were rendered ineffective on Saturday. Against an explosive offense like Ohio State, Indiana was in a no-win situation, defensively.
“With that quarterback playing the way he is, they’re really impressive,” Allen said. “...It really came down to not getting pressure on him.”
If the Hoosiers chose to blitz, fewer defenders remained in the secondary to cover the likes of All-Big Ten receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
Indiana was without All-American cornerback Tiawan Mullen for the third straight game, and Reese Taylor didn’t play for the second straight game due to injuries. Allen said not having two starting cornerbacks makes a major difference.
But when Indiana rushed three and dropped more defenders in coverage, Stroud was given all day to throw, meticulously picking apart Indiana’s defense.
“They did a good job picking up our blitzes and knowing when we were going to come,” McFadden said.
That’s the reality of playing the team that has gained more yards than anyone in 2021. And when Indiana is forced to rely on near-perfect defensive efforts each week, eventually everything falls apart, leaving the Hoosiers hopeless.
Hopeless was also the sentiment exuding from Allen after the game. The always-energetic Allen who usually answers each question with enthusiasm was left searching for explanations. When the defense that has won Indiana games throughout Allen’s tenure was diced up for 539 total yards, Allen was left with little to say.
A season that began with Allen aggressively stating aspirations to contend for a Big Ten championship has turned to discussions on whether the third or fourth-string quarterback is a better option for Indiana’s struggling offense.
The singular bright spot for Indiana on Saturday night came at the cost of losing starting quarterback Jack Tuttle. Tuttle released the ball quickly, but was driven to the ground by three Buckeye linemen as his pass reached Peyton Hendershot in the endzone on Indiana’s first drive of the game. Initial x-rays on Tuttle came back negative, but he will undergo an MRI to examine any possible ligament damage, according to Allen.
Hendershot’s touchdown highlighted a five-catch performance that made him Indiana’s all-time receptions leader among tight ends, but was overshadowed by dreadful offensive performances accumulating each week.
Donaven McCulley took over, but Allen said the freshman quarterback is still learning to progress through his reads. Grant Gemel alternated snaps with McCulley throughout the second half and finished 3-for-4 with nine passing yards.
Indiana played three quarterbacks who combined to complete eight of 17 passes to go with a run game that mustered 48 yards on 37 carries. Offensive struggles have been no secret this year, but the defensive breakdown that took place on Saturday night made the outcome even more troubling and left the big-picture outlook for 2021 looking hopeless.
But moving forward, Allen said Indiana doesn’t have a choice but to rely on the foundations of the program: accountability and toughness.
“You have got to be able to fall back on who you are and what you’re made on,” Allen said.
Jack Tuttle replaced Michael Penix Jr. under center last week, but Indiana still came up short in a 20-15 loss to Michigan State. The Hoosiers now sit at 2-4 on the year, but the road does not get any easier.
No. 5 Ohio State will arrive in Bloomington for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff on ABC on Saturday. As the Hoosiers fight to get back in the win column, William McDermott and Jack Ankony address the biggest questions for Indiana midway through the season.
Indiana was moving the ball on its opening drive, a rare feat for the 2021 Hoosiers.
Jack Tuttle completed seven of his first nine pass attempts. He converted on third and 13 with a crisp pass to Ty Fryfogle and moved the chains with a bubble screen to Peyton Hendershot on third and 11.
Indiana looked like the 2020 Hoosiers who could threaten any defense down the field. Tuttle was clicking with his receivers, and the Michigan State defense was on its heels. But after two runs stalled, producing four yards, the Hoosiers faced third and goal.
Tuttle looked for a quick pass to Hendershot in the end zone, but was forced to spin to his left, only to find Noah Harvey and three fellow Spartans in the backfield. Tuttle was driven to the ground, and Indiana settled for a field goal — unable to turn a red zone trip into six points — yet again.
In Indiana’s two wins this season, it has scored a touchdown on the opening drive. But in its four losses, Indiana has started games with a pick six, two three and outs and a field goal. That simplifies Indiana’s big-picture offensive issues, but is telling, nonetheless. Indiana has scored one touchdown in three Big Ten games, its two wins coming against Idaho and Western Kentucky.
On Monday, Indiana head coach Tom Allen and offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan each highlighted turnovers and a lack of red zone execution as Indiana’s two biggest offensive failures this season.
“It’s really not that much more complicated than that,” Sheridan said. “...It’s not for a lack of trying or problem solving, but it just hasn’t come to light.”
It’s no secret to Allen or Sheridan, and it's obvious to anyone who has watched even one game. As simple as it may sound — don't turn the ball over and score touchdowns instead of field goals — its a pair of problems no one can figure out.
Michael Penix Jr. and Tuttle have combined for 10 interceptions this season after throwing five all of last year, and each has had an interception returned for a touchdown. This has resulted in an offensive grade of 66.9 (out of 100), according to to Pro Football Focus, which makes Indiana one of seven power-five programs ranked outside of the top 100 offenses, joining Florida State, Illinois, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Kansas and Arizona.
After watching film, Sheridan said Indiana missed a number of opportunities to stretch the Spartan defense down the field. Fryfogle led Indiana with 65 yards on seven receptions on Saturday, but hasn’t been the same threat that won him Big Ten Receiver of the Year in 2020.
Fryfogle has yet to reach the 100-yard mark this year and already has seven drops, compared to two in all of 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. His drop percentage has risen to 17.5 percent in 2021 after finishing at 5.1 percent last year.
The transfer of Stephen Carr from USC to Indiana was an assumed improvement in the backfield, but one that hasn’t come to fruition. Carr is averaging 3.6 yards per carry on 121 attempts, but as a whole, Indiana’s run game ranks 12th in the Big Ten.
Part of Indiana’s offensive woes in both the run and pass game come back to offensive line play. Pro Football Focus ranks Indiana’s offensive line 113th in the country with an 83.7 pass block efficiency rating. It’s unfair to place blame on one position group, player or coach, but as a whole, Indiana has been searching for solutions since its 34-6 loss at Iowa to begin the season.
And with a 2-4 record, the margin for error moving forward is miniscule.
Indiana entered this season with aspirations to challenge the Big Ten powerhouses. Signs reading “What have you done today to win the Big Ten?” line the Memorial Stadium hallways. But with No. 5 Ohio State coming to Bloomington next week and a road trip to No. 6 Michigan on Nov. 6, Indiana needs to win four of its final six games to become bowl eligible. It’s not where Allen or any player expected to be, but it’s the reality they now face.
After a 20-15 loss to Michigan State, Allen reached for a word used commonly by football coaches: grit. Allen defines grit as perseverance and passion toward a long-term goal, but says the negative side of grit is that its only truly learned through hard times. Indiana has absorbed knockout punches from No. 11 Iowa, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 7 Penn State and No. 9 Michigan State, and the locker room feels it.
Following Indiana’s loss to the Spartans on homecoming, Allen walked around the locker room and had one-on-one conversations with Indiana’s leaders. He knows they’re hurting, but loves how they’ve responded.
For Allen, all Indiana can do is “keep punching.”
“We’re swinging hard,” Allen said. “This team believes in what we’re doing.”
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.
Indiana had a chance to reset with a bye week following a 24-0 loss at Penn State, but are right back at with another top-10 matchup against Michigan State. Jack Tuttle will likely start at quarterback after Michael Penix Jr. suffered an AC separation in his shoulder against Penn State.
The Hoosier Network’s football crew Griffin Gonzalez, Jack Ankony and Tyler Tachman break down the most important questions ahead of Indiana’s sixth game of the season.
Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III leads the nation in rushing yards. Will Indiana be able to slow him down?
Griffin: Indiana will need to slow him down should they have any prayer in winning this game. Walker is truly a great runner but I wouldn’t describe him as unstoppable quite just yet. He hasn’t faced off against a defense quite like Indiana’s. I think they will do a good job of limiting him.
Weston Kramer drinks a 2,000-calorie protein shake each night.
But with the nation’s top rusher Kenneth Walker III headed to Bloomington, Kramer bulked up a bit extra ahead of Saturday’s matchup.
“Last night I put a piece of cake in it, too,” Kramer said.
Indiana’s defense ranks eighth in the Big Ten with 126.8 rushing yards allowed per game, but need a stout performance from the front seven to slow down Walker III. The Spartans’ tailback leads the country with 913 rushing yards — 122 more than second place — and gains over seven yards per carry.
Indiana defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said tremendous vision and patience separate Walker III from the rest of the pack. Walker III often sets up eight yards behind the line of scrimmage in Michigan State’s pistol set, inches closer as he lets the offensive line set up holes, then makes an explosive cut while accelerating at full speed.
“He can go from zero to 100 in a blink of an eye,” Warren said.
After Raheem Layne returned an interception deep into Nittany Lion territory, Indiana had a chance to tie the game at seven in the first quarter. But on fourth-and-1 from the 4-yard line, Stephen Carr was stuffed. The Hoosiers wouldn’t sniff the end zone for the rest of the night.
Indiana’s struggles in the run game have been well documented – ranking 13th in the Big Ten, the Hoosiers are averaging just 122.2 rushing yards per game. And things may have just gotten worse.
Following Indiana’s 24-0 loss to Penn State, backup running back Tim Baldwin Jr. entered the transfer portal. Indiana has now lost its top three running backs from the 2020 season.
In addition to losing Baldwin, Stevie Scott signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent and is now on the Denver Broncos. Sampson James transferred to Purdue just weeks before the 2021 season.
“The bottom line is this is a football team,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “I want guys that are all in, bought in and ready to do whatever is necessary in whatever their role might be.”
STATE COLLEGE, PA. – Jack Tuttle was greeted with rib-rattling tackle on his first play.
Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie beat Indiana offensive tackle Caleb Jones off the edge, allowing Ebiketie to steamroll the Hoosiers’ backup quarterback. Michael Penix Jr. exited the game with an injury to his throwing shoulder after scrambling to avoid a sack and being sandwiched by a pair of Nittany Lion defenders on the previous play.
Neither Penix nor Tuttle were able to lead Indiana to a score, but it became clear that Indiana’s problems are much deeper than who lines up under center. Whether it was dropped passes, a lack of push from its offensive line, play calling or poor decision making from quarterbacks, an inept performance from the offense was the result in Indiana’s 24-0 loss at No. 4 Penn State.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Michael Penix’s dive for the pylon triggered a barrage toward Penn State student James Sandt’s television.
Remote controls, food, drinks, anything they could hurl to express their frustration at the officials’ decision to uphold the call on the field. Sandt called the play a fluke – one that will fire up a crowd at Beaver Stadium known nationally as one of the most difficult places to play.
“Everyone’s going to be booing Penix,” Sandt said.
There’s no doubting Penn State fans’ dislike towards Penix and the call that initiated a disappointing 4-5 season for the Nittany Lions. But for Sandt and the Penn State faithful, Saturday night is a chance at revenge.
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.
Devon Matthews spent the weekend in an Iowa City hospital. Chris Keys tore his ACL against Idaho. Jaylin Williams entered concussion protocol after Indiana’s win over Western Kentucky.
When asked to clarify who the next man up in Indiana’s secondary would be, defensive coordinator Charlton Warren couldn’t help but reach for comedic relief.
“You got anybody in mind?” Warren said.
Warren trains Indiana’s defensive backs to play multiple positions, which has eased the blow of weekly injuries to the secondary. But this group still hasn’t faced its biggest challenge of the season: a trip to Happy Valley against No. 4 Penn State, yes, but also lining up against one of the top receivers in the nation, Jahan Dotson.
Dotson has racked up 27 catches for 362 yards while reaching the endzone once in all four games. Dotson’s 27 catches lead all Big Ten receivers and rank 11th in the country. Through four games, he hasn’t dropped a pass.
Peyton Hendershot carried three Cincinnati defenders on his back as he dived for the pylon.
Michael Penix Jr. didn’t need to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage on a play-action rollout, but it led to a 16-yard touchdown. It gave Indiana a 7-0 lead over the Bearcats. A sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium erupted. It solidified Hendershot as the playmaking safety blanket that can solve Penix’s early struggles.
Tom Allen didn’t know, but Indiana had just lost perhaps its most important defensive player.
“I was asking, ‘Who’s [the flag] on? Where’d it come from?’” Allen said. “I had no clue. I was very, very frustrated by the information I was getting.”
Micah McFadden and Jaren “Stone” Handy broke through the line to sandwich Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder and force an errant pass. Instead of forcing Cincinnati’s fifth punt of the first half, McFadden was flagged for targeting after his hit on the Heisman candidate Ridder, ejecting the All-American linebacker from the game.
“It was massive, without question,” Allen said. “It changed everything.”
Cincinnati moved the chains for just the third time of the game, but more important was the momentum the Bearcats gained. Indiana led 14-0 and was riding the enthusiasm of a sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium, but there was a different energy after the penalty.
For Indiana linebacker Cam Jones, the penalty took away the counterpart who he said can read his mind. Jones and McFadden have been teammates since their freshman year and have built chemistry that has translated into one of the best defenses in the Big Ten over the past two seasons.
For Allen, Indiana had lost a captain, one who plays a huge role in anything the Hoosiers do defensively. After controlling the game with the strength of its defense, Indiana was forced to adapt.
“We were dominating them to that point,” Allen said. “Dominating them.”
Following McFadden’s ejection, Ridder and the Bearcats took hold of the game. On that drive, Ridder threw for 27 yards and rushed for 10 before capping off the drive with a handoff to Jerome Ford, who punched in Cincinnati’s first touchdown of the game.
Cincinnati took advantage of the 6-foot-2-inch, 232-pound hole left in the middle of the Indiana defense and turned a 14-0 deficit into a 38-24 victory.
While the targeting penalty can be debated without conclusion from the moment the flag was thrown until the final seconds ticked away, the impact of losing McFadden cannot. McFadden has been the heart and soul of Indiana’s defense for over two years, and without him, the Hoosiers went from domination to desperation.
“You lose your captain, that’s tough,” Allen said. “Other guys have got to step up, and to me, that’s how you respond. Sometimes life is not fair.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a disastrous start to the 2021 season, Tom Allen and the Hoosiers have been open and honest about the mistakes at hand. Indiana will flush week one’s loss and face Idaho in its home opener at Memorial Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.
The Hoosier Network’s football crew Griffin Gonzalez, Jack Ankony and William McDermott tackle week two’s most pressing questions in this week’s roundtable preview: