Hoosiers’ defense on a mission vs. Lions

The weekly goal for Indiana’s defense is to allow 17 points or fewer.

The Hoosiers met that objective in each of their past two games, victories over Virginia and Georgia Southern. But with a showdown at No. 4 Penn State looming Saturday afternoon at 3:30, they also realize that mission is about to become tougher.

Much, much tougher.

With quarterback Trace McSorley eager to test Big Ten secondaries and running back Saquon Barkley leading the pack in this year’s Heisman Trophy race, the Nittany Lions present the kinds of challenges no other conference offense can match.

So after strong performances in each of the past two contests, Indiana defenders recognize that this week’s road trip will test their mettle.

“There’s not a quarterback, tailback combination in the country right now that’s playing at a higher level,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “They are doing a great, great job, and they are dangerous and confident. (Barkley) is making runs that are impressive, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield. And the quarterback is just, man … McSorley is just special. He’s just got that moxie that you want in a quarterback — that core confidence and that belief.”

It’s a maddening task accounting for both players. The Hoosiers know all too well.
In last season’s 45-31 loss to Penn State in Bloomington, Indiana got to Barkley before he could break the explosive, exciting runs that are his trademark, holding him to 58 yards on 33 carries.

Even as the Hoosiers slowed Barkley, they were unable to fully contain McSorley when it mattered most, as the Penn State quarterback recorded 183 of his 332 passing yards in the final 18 minutes of regulation.

McSorley is a gunslinger that likes to heave it deep, but he’s also extremely effective running zone read. Last week against Iowa, McSorley picked up 61 yards on 17 carries.

For the season, he’s averaging nearly five yards per carry.

“He can keep plays alive,” IU safety Chase Dutra said. “He’s really good with his feet. He’s got a great arm. He’s really strong with his arm. It’s like Saquon Barkley. You gotta contain him and get on him early. That’s what we’re hoping to do.”

As dangerous as McSorley can be within the framework of Penn State’s offense, there have been moments this month when he hasn’t looked particularly sharp.
It would behoove the Hoosiers to pressure McSorley, while still accounting for Barkley. But that, of course, is easier said than done.

“We’re not going to give anything away, but at the same time, the logical thing is you have to find out what they do really well and you have to find a way to take it away,” Allen said. “You have to make them beat you with things that are not their strength.

“If they can beat you with the things that are not their strength, then they are probably just better than you. … It’s a tremendous challenge because, you know, they are so spread, they are going to get a lot of snaps.”

Penn State is averaging 67 offensive plays and 40.5 points per game. The Lions haven’t been held to 17 points or fewer at Beaver Stadium since a 28-16 loss to Michigan on Nov. 21, 2015.

So meeting their weekly goal will be a tough task this week for the Hoosiers.

Meanwhile, the big picture goal for Indiana’s defense this season is to finish among the top 25 units in the nation. To meet that objective, IU still has work to do.

Indiana enters the weekend as the No. 100-ranked defense in the nation, yielding 428.3 yards per game. Appalachian State (302.8 ypg) is currently ranked No. 25.

The statistics, however are somewhat misleading. IU lost track of Ohio State late in the season opener and gave up some chunk plays to Georgia Southern’s quirky offense last week.

Even so, Indiana has passed the eyeball test through three games.

Allen acknowledged this week that the Ohio State loss, during which the Hoosiers allowed 596 yards, was an unmistakable setback in terms of Indiana reaching its top-25 goal, but the IU coach says his current group is already leaps and bounds better than the one that finished last season at No. 45 nationally.

In their last two games, Hoosier defenders are allowing an average of 344.5 yards per contest.

“I do think we’re making progress,” Allen said. “We’re a lot better defense. May not be (better) on paper than we were a year ago at this time, (but) there’s no question. I don’t think it’s even close.”

The stiffest test of the season will come Saturday against Penn State.

“We just gotta play sound defense,” IU linebacker Tegray Scales said. “It’s just one of those deals where we have to buy in, watch film and just prepare our best.”

 

One comment

  1. Preparation makes playing defense easier because done right you know the play coming. Last year it seemed as if IU knew what PSU was running each play. Only when the turnovers on offense and our young DBs came up short late in the game did we lose the game.

    Beating PSU at home is a big task but with all three phases clicking IU could pull off the win.

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