Pass game makes strides, defense steady in win at Rutgers

Michael Penix Jr. was certainly a picture of progress for Indiana’s passing game at Rutgers.

The football was zipping out of the lefty’s hand with velocity and precision. As it sliced through the Rutgers secondary, the ball found the hands of IU’s receivers, on time and with regularity.

The fingers on those hands just weren’t ready to grip it.

Saturday was a poignant reminder that passing is a two-way street. A unit that was slow out of the gate against Penn State, partially because of Penix’s misguided balls, stumbled again in the first quarter versus Rutgers. Just for much different reasons.

But just as they eventually ignited versus Penn State, there was a turnaround for IU’s passing game. Penix, able to complete just three of his first 10 passes at Rutgers, finished with a 17-of-26 mark for 238 yards and three scores. His throws always gave IU a chance to move the chains. It just took IU’s receivers a moment to recover from a half-dozen first-quarter drops.

“We gotta catch the ball,” IU tight end Peyton Hendershot said postgame. “Mike’s been (throwing) the ball good for us. We gotta make those plays. If we make those plays, we’ll have our offense rolling and doing good things in the Big Ten.”

In the end, what matters are points on the board, and this was IU’s 11th game with 30 or more points since 2019. The only Big Ten team with more during that span is Ohio State with 13 games of 30-plus.

There was just bound to be some rust on IU’s aerial attack coming into the season. Not only had Penix not played since early November 2019 because of a collarbone injury, but the Hoosiers couldn’t hold a single 7-on-7 throwing session this offseason because of the pandemic.

Not only that, but IU is breaking in a first-time offensive coordinator, Nick Sheridan.

Penix seemed to return to form in the final 1:42 of regulation versus Penn State, as well as overtime, and he just continued to roll at Rutgers. His receivers just needed a second to get their mitts ready for his fastball.

Hendershot, in particular, felt a pass from Penix slipping through his fingertips for the second time in as many weeks Saturday. It had an eerily similar feeling to his PSU miscue on a critical third-and-4, because his Rutgers drop, again, came on third down, and, again, it came on an in-breaking route across the middle.

For an All-Big Ten tight end who had just a couple of drops in 2019, it was a tough walk back to the sideline.

“I was thinking about it too much,” Hendershot said. “It wasn’t instinct.”

Luckily, he had more opportunities Saturday. Hendershot started the Hoosiers’ first scoring drive with an eight-yard catch on first down. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt junior also hauled in a 14-yard reception on the very next drive, which led to another field goal.

After Rutgers cut the lead to 23-15, Hendershot played a key role in the Hoosiers’ response. He caught an 11-yard pass on a tight end delay route, getting IU down to the 2-yard line. Penix found Hendershot again in the end zone, padding a 30-15 cushion.

“I just felt lost in the game, I got going,” Hendershot said. “I didn’t think about it, and I think the catches just started coming, and making it easier on myself.”

Hendershot’s final tally was six catches for 34 yards on eight targets. Whop Philyor, who had a couple of drops of his own, finished with five receptions for 137 yards.

Expectations were certainly high for an offense that returned All-Big Ten targets like Philyor and Hendershot, as well as Penix behind center, and Stevie Scott running the ball. The offensive line still needs to find its footing on a more consistent basis, especially on the interior, but IU’s skill players seemed to sync up on Saturday.

“I think we’re all trying to force things, because we have a bunch of starters coming back, trying to make too many plays,” Hendershot said. “Just let the game come to us. I think we did a good job of that.

“When our time comes, we made our play.”

And the defense … 

While the offense appeared to make much-needed strides Saturday, IU’s defense continued its course.

Aggressively so.

“We’re not a bend-don’t-break philosophy. I don’t believe in that,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “We want to be aggressive. We want to create pressure on the quarterback.”

IU did that in a variety of ways Saturday, via defensive line stunts and second-level blitzes. But the Hoosiers weren’t just sending their linebackers.

Multiple times, defensive coordinator Kane Wommack was sending cornerbacks, specifically Tiawan Mullen. The sophomore, who didn’t register a sack in 2019, came up with 2.5 takedowns of Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral.

Rutgers finished with 248 yards of offense, equally split between 124 yards passing and 124 rushing.

“Mixing it up on him, giving him different looks, created a lot of havoc back there,” linebacker Micah McFadden said.

More important than the Hoosiers’ four sacks were the defense’s three interceptions, which springboarded the offense before Penix and his receivers were connecting.

A blitz from Cam Jones forced one errant ball. Another came courtesy of a rush from defensive tackle Sio Nofoagatoto’a. Across the unit, key plays were being made, including a swat of a fourth-down pass by defensive tackle Demarcus Elliott.

There had been talk all preseason about the IU defense taking a leap in 2020, after playing so young in 2019. The hype seems to be bearing itself out on the field. Junior safeties Devon Matthews and Jamar Johnson are flying all over. Mullen, Reese Taylor, and Jaylin Williams were all making plays behind the line of scrimmage.

There were some untimely penalties, which gave Rutgers life on its scoring drives. But there is a confidence building within IU’s defense, and the Hoosiers believe in it.

“When we play together as one, we have one of the top defenses in the nation,” Taylor said.

“We can do anything right now.”

Oh, the onsides kick

Charles Campbell continues to be reliable in the kicking game, hitting all three of his attempts at Rutgers.

Hayden Whitehead is still a veteran, reliable punter.

But in terms of the Hoosiers’ kickoff and kick return units, there is still some work to be done.

Last week, it was a “power squib” that didn’t have any distance that nearly doomed IU. This week, the Hoosiers weren’t able to recover an onsides kick — an error that didn’t have overly disastrous consequences at Rutgers, but a mistake IU knows it can’t make a habit.

Allen has talked about giving the special teams phase extra attention, and it may still need his eyes and ears for a little longer.

Then again, it’s still just Week 2, and the No. 13 Hoosiers are 2-0. Better to not think themselves perfect heading into a matchup with No. 25 Michigan.

“There are a whole bunch of things we have to get better at,” Allen said. “That helps because the film doesn’t lie.”

17 comments

  1. If I were coach Allen I would change pregame for the QB and receivers to give them enough time to adjust to the passes. Coach Sheridan needs to open up the offense more and how do you not see the passing game will open up the run game as it did in the Rutgers game. Trying to run the football into the strength of the defensive front just doesn’t make any sense and coach seemed to be determined to do that early on in the game.

    1. Achieving a balance on offense is key, as it directly impacts things like field position (something a defensive coach like Allen highly values). It’s also helpful to possess the ball and protect the defense, which was left on the field for long stretches against PSU., and it can help late in the game when effective ball control and clock management is vital. Yesterday, the offense you think needs to be opened up was actually very effective. Early runs that you probably don’t think are effective prove more valuable later in the game, when a tired D line gets worn out by the constant push. This is what happened yesterday, enabling IU to have over 550 yards in total offense, a dominant time of possession, and a nearly equal balance of run versus pass.

    2. Amen! The strength of the MI Defense is the middle of the line. Be creative! Use all of your gifted players! Every possession is designed to score a TD!

  2. I agree IU needs an effective running attack but not just running the ball. Use the pass to create a better running attack that keeps the defense off balanced along with something different than runs into the strength of the defense.

    Well designed passing offenses around the country show how they open up the running game. Look how Alabama has emphasized the pass over the run and still control the clock with only a decent running game. Many passes are really just running plays because they are short and easy to complete, coaches call them long hand offs. We haven’t seen that aspect of IU’s passing game much this season but that seems to be more a function of defenses defending against last year’s offense so far. Penix pushes the ball up the field more this season and defenses haven’t adjusted yet.

    1. These are issues related to the O line, which I knew was going to have trouble this year. Easy to say we should just call different plays, but you have to be able to execute.

    2. v I’ve never been in favor of the OL crouch pre-snap. It gives great optimum position for pass blocking but doesn’t allow them to be low for the leverage needed to drive block on runs. I guess it’s a Hiller preference. I guess if it keeps MP from being maimed I’m okay with it but it robs rushing yardage.

  3. A bit off-topic, but I think the absence of full stadiums is really causing far more an equalizer than I anticipated. I sort of feel like Hoosiers are used to generating enthusiasm for the game/opponent without the massive decibels and crowd support. And Allen also exudes positive energy crowd or no crowd.
    May be more of a shock to the system for those powerhouse Big10 anchor teams which feel they bring the crowds. Sort of like a big Broadway show with renowned actors suddenly having to play to fake applause and empty chairs….Shock to the ego.
    IU Football is not experiencing that same shock to the ego.
    Hoosiers are used to the curtain coming up and looking into an empty theater.
    And maybe we’re catching some better teams before they get over a bit of that shock? Far more to the psychology of sports than we may seek to realize/investigate. For once, the Hoosiers may have some sort of weird advantage…albeit strangely and tragically the consequence of a worldwide pandemic and national health crisis.

  4. Bottom Line: I don”t believe sports is the same product without fans. And because it’s not the same product, I feel very little conclusions can be made concerning this season. Not to mention, many more teams may be experiencing hits to their rosters because of Covid-19 infections.

    Big time athletes with big egos love the theater. Don’t believe for a minute that it’s simply the love of knocking someone’s head off. The game has been tempered much of its energy and emotion. Football is not football…and gladiators are not gladiators without a packed Coliseum, the presence of figureheads and kings…..and the aura of a true stage.

    Remember tabletop electric football…? Remember the unpredictable plays and random vibrations making it all just a rather haphazard mess of results?
    I see 2020 college football as tabletop electric football….It’s football powered by electricity with anything really “electric.” Same cardboard fans as well…

    1. You are contradicting yourself! You describe how little or no fans focuses the attention to the play on the field. That is the most accurate barometer of the relative strength of the two teams!

      1. Not a contradiction at all…The absence of fans can temper in varying degrees the emotions of players. Superstars live for the stage. Some teams feed more off of crowd noise while other teams (e.g. Indiana) have long grown used to very little fan/crowd support and rely more on the coach’s motivation.
        Also, the pandemic is affecting teams in varying degrees. Do you believe ND is facing the same Clemson team on the field without Trevor Lawrence? If we were facing Michigan without our developing superstar qb due to a positive Covid test, you believe are chances are just as strong?

        There is no avoiding the placement of an asterisk on this season. Don’t really care if it’s MLB, NBA, NFL, college football, or college basketball, the bubbling, taking fans out of the equation, empty stadium, supposed “neutral sites” and the differing degrees of Covid impacting various teams has undoubtedly caused advantages and disadvantages which have turned “all things remaining equal” topsy-turvy.

        Was Muhammad Ali a showman? Think of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ and how Ali was always promoting and playing to the crowds. Is he the same boxer in the ring without the ability to interact with the fans while getting into the heads of his opponents? Obviously, he was one of the most gifted boxers to ever step into the ring…But his gifts were also in valuing the crowd and being a performer.

        Simply because you’re looking at a team game, don’t deceive yourself into thinking top elite athletes and superstars are the same performers on the field without the interaction and interplay with the crowd.

        Asterisk. It’s just a given for 2020.

  5. oops…

    I see 2020 college football as tabletop electric football….It’s football powered by electricity with [without] anything really “electric.”

  6. H4H, even if what you say is true it just shows how the difference in talent is and IU could beat those teams. This year the games equalize the game and the best teams and good coaches win. Players that only play their best due to fans aren’t doing for the right reason or maybe IU’s talent is just better now.

  7. IU talent and program is better now. 10-5 last 15 games with some good wins. Last two over ranked Penn State and Rutgers when IU played them had a winning record. So IU did get that win over a team with a winning record.

  8. A lot of players feed off of big time stages….I think that’s a given. LeBron James didn’t seem like the same guy until well into the NBA Finals. I believe the absence of fans does have a psychological effect. Sure, they still know it’s being televised, but it’s different.
    Fact remains, IU Football is used to not having much support in the stands.

    Lastly, the debate could continue endlessly on what types of teams/players/coaches suffer more because of the absence of fan support in the stands. But players having to sit out for weeks after positive Covid tests is not up for debate. They are removed from action from 14-21 days.
    ND will not face the same Clemson team this weekend without Trevor Lawrence playing for the Tigers.
    Now that Covid is spiking nationally, we may see many more rosters hit with positives (could be key players …or solid members who impact games though their names aren’t headline grabbers).

    There will always be an asterisk next to 2020 results….We are attempting to normalize the day, but it’s anything but normal. All things are not equal and I simply don’t think wins and losses will be under much consideration in retaining or firing coaches because of that asterisk.
    If I were to be totally honest, I think we could beat Michigan by 30 this Saturday and Harbaugh will not be on a hot seat. Most people understand there is nothing normal going on right now…and coaching evaluations (negative and positive) will be made in light of a delayed, condensed, disruptive and roller coaster season of 2020.
    Hopefully, the asterisk does not include a 2021-22 season. Things are not looking up with Covid-19 and it won’t be normalcy for a very long time.

  9. It will never be “normal” again! But it can be good! Five years from now we will still be testing and quarantining after positive tests. But with vaccines, therapeutics, masking, social distancing, hand washing, etc. the numbers of infections will be very small! And the time for isolation short.

  10. I have no problem with things not being “normal.” I don’t like normal right now. We’ve done nothing to value the planet, our air and our dwindling supply of clean water. Whatever the human race has done in its quest for normalcy has only shortened the existence and respect for other living creatures.
    The pandemic is simply a tiny warning shot from earth. The only thing “normal” is that the round lonely ball of life has been circling around the sun for many billions of years before humans thought they made it normal. And it will be circling around the sun in normal fashion long after we’ve made the place uninhabitable for our lungs and stomachs.
    Whatever man has done here as “normal” has basically been a sh__t-show of abnormalities as they pertain to long term preservation and valuing of life outside of the forms in his own reflection.
    We are forever caught up with us and each other. The simple obsession with describing a population wrought in “division” only exemplifies our disregard for all things other than fighting against each other. But I’m confident the planet will one day rid itself of the abnormal species having no appreciation of its own home. The planet will reset, let out one big sneeze (maybe even a Covid sneeze), expel us rather quickly….as it becomes the ultimate survivor in the normal survival of the fittest.

  11. Always thought it to be rather absurdly tragic/ironic in how we obsessed over the Huanan Market as a normal origin of the “China Virus” but looked right past the completely brutal and inhumane treatment of all the tightly confined animals stacked and packed atop each other into rows and rows filthy cages as if “normal.” Ultimately, we lose countless lives and spend billions in worldwide dollars in attempts to curb the pandemic while giving no small consideration for how simply treating other species with dignity may hold the keys to saving our narcissistic selves.
    All in the name of a god in the image of man…..we pay for heartless behavior of all other living things.

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