IU defense continues to shine in win at Wisconsin

Mentally sweeping through the challenges this Indiana team had overcome this season, head coach Tom Allen started at the beginning.

The Hoosiers may have just lost star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. for the season in last week’s game with Maryland. Allen, personally, may have just watched his son, linebacker Thomas, go down with a season-ending injury three weeks ago at Michigan State.

But Allen started with another name Saturday following his team’s win at Wisconsin.

“Lost Marcelino Ball before the season ever started, our most experienced and arguably one of our most experienced players,” Allen said, as he then ran through a list of names that included Penix and his son. “This team just keeps fighting, keeps on believing, keeps on staying the course. They just don’t blink.”

This team has so effortlessly overcome each obstacle, it’s easy to forget what occurred back in September, when an ACL tear sidelined the Hoosiers’ hybrid linebacker-safety Ball and forced IU into next-man-up mode for the first time. Especially important to recall, though, after IU posted a defensive effort like it did Saturday in Madison.

Without the benefit of a player like Ball, the Hoosiers confused and harassed Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz in key situations. Without one of their top defensive tackles, Demarcus Elliott, who was inactive Saturday, IU gave up 14 productive rushes of four yards or more, including six of 10-plus. But the bulk of the Badgers’ runs, 18 of them, went for less than three.

Three sacks, five tackles for loss, an interception, and only six points surrendered. It was just another productive day for an IU defense that hasn’t taken many steps back, even after suffering the team’s first personnel loss of the season back in September.

“Our defense has a mindset that they are not going to cross this line, no matter how many yards they get, or how long their drives are going to be,” said IU linebacker Micah McFadden, who led IU with nine tackles, including two for loss. “We are holding them to field goals or no points at all, and they are not going to cross that line.”

McFadden, who leads the Big Ten with five sacks, came up with one in a clutch situation Saturday. In the final moments, Wisconsin was marching with the ball, three yards into the red zone after a four-yard gain by Mertz on first-and-10. If Mertz was able to move the Badgers forward again on second down, they would have been that much closer to tying the game.

But on that second-down play, McFadden sacked Mertz for a four-yard loss. That was the second of two all-out blitzes the Hoosiers brought on that final drive, the first leading to an 18-yard rush by Mertz on third-and-8 from midfield. But the next time, McFadden got home.

That put Wisconsin in pass mode on their last two plays, both incompletions, the first forced by linebacker Cam Jones, the last by corner Reese Taylor.

“We definitely had an idea they were going to try and pass the ball down the field, so we brought two all-out blitzes,” McFadden said. “Initially, my blitz (the second time) did not really work, but I kind of stayed alive and just spun off the block and he was right there.

“Then Cam Jones made that play, and Reese was awesome.”

Excluding a 42-point onslaught from Ohio State — 35 of which came in the first half in Columbus — IU’s defense has now allowed 17 combined points in wins over Michigan State, Maryland, and Wisconsin. And eight of those points came on a late touchdown by the Terrapins, with many of the Hoosiers’ backups on the field.

IU’s defensive unit has established itself as one of the best in the Big Ten in creating chaos, ranking atop the conference in interceptions with 17. The next-best team is Northwestern with 12. The Hoosiers are also No. 1 in sacks with 23, ahead of Iowa’s 20.

Those two statistics are staggering when set against the backdrop of last year’s production. IU had 27 sacks in a full 13-game season in 2019, along with just seven interceptions. Now, IU has a run going of nine straight games with at least two takeaways, which is a program-best streak.

It’s a defensive group that’s dominated by sophomores and juniors, pressing on without a redshirt senior like Ball, still seeming to have fully come into its own. That makes wins at Wisconsin possible.

“You still have to play great defense if you want to win in this league,” Allen said. “But if you recall, I felt like we could be a top-10 defense, I said that at the beginning of the year. And it’s proving to be true.”

It’s a unit that has sustained some hits. Without Ball, the husky position has been anchored by redshirt junior Bryant Fitzgerald, but corner Tiawan Mullen and others have also filled the spot in certain packages. The sophomore has blitzed more than ever, and Mullen came up with a pivotal strip-sack of Mertz late in the first quarter, which led to the Hoosiers’ first touchdown.

But then there was the unexpected absence of Elliott at tackle Saturday, which forced linemen like redshirt freshman C.J. Person and redshirt sophomore Jonathan King into additional playing time. In the end, IU’s defense held the conference’s third-best rushing team to 156 rushing yards, about 60 yards below their average.

These are things the Hoosiers have long believed they could accomplish. Those calling No. 10 IU’s win over No. 18 Wisconsin an “upset” may have had less belief, but that just leaves work left to be done.

“We are trying to prove people wrong and trying to prove people right,” Mullen said. “Either way, everyone has an effect in this program, and everyone can see what Indiana is all about.”

4 comments

  1. Is there a chance Purdue opting out of bucket game or just a few players?
    It seems some teams have struggled and muddled IU football has seized an opportunity.

  2. The stat that is hard to believe is 5 sacks leads the B1G. IU’s defense is one of the most disruptive defenses in the country and in the B1G. I love that defensively we have added zone concepts as it leads to INT if taught correctly and keeps eyes on the QB.

    If IU can produce more edge pressure without stunting from the secondary the defense will get even better. I hope most if not all the defensive players come back next year to improve IU’s defense even more.

    1. v you’re entirely right. A steady edge rush in my eyes is the last piece in the D picture. 20-30% less blitzing and very possibly 3x the sacks. An OC’s ultimate insomnia.

  3. Well, we can confidently assume Ball will be back, and that is significant. But beyond that, it’s all about depth at every position. And the players who have stepped up to fill an injured teammate’s position is proof that IU’s recruiting and development of young players has improved greatly.

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