IU offense ready to erupt vs. Rutgers

Indiana offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer wasn’t tallying the completions, so there was no way for him to know Michael Penix Jr. was in the midst of a program-record streak.

But what the Hoosiers’ play-caller does remember is watching his offense with a different frame of mind during the third quarter at Michigan State. With every consecutive completion — eight of Penix’s 20 straight came on an 81-yard drive to start the period — there seemed to be a rhythm building.

In that groove, DeBoer found a slice of peace. In his first year leading the Hoosier offense, much of the spring, summer, and fall had been focused on rooting out misreads and misalignments. With the offense moving so smoothly, he didn’t have those concerns.

It wasn’t until after a Logan Justus field goal that DeBoer’s eyes turned to the scoreboard. That rhythmic, free-flowing drive had just bled more than 6 minutes off the clock.

“That’s probably the most comfortable I’ve been with our guys, trusting they are going to be lined up properly, they are going to motion properly,” DeBoer said, “and I was able to really hone in on what coverages we were seeing, the defenses we were seeing, (instead of) what our guys were going to do or not do.”

While inconsistencies on defense would ultimately bite the Hoosiers in a loss at Michigan State, DeBoer and the offensive unit return for Saturday’s homecoming contest against Rutgers with some momentum.

In their first Big Ten contest, the Hoosiers were limited to 257 yards and a dismal 3-of-17 third-down conversion rate by Ohio State. But in East Lansing, IU picked up 356 yards and moved the chains on 6-of-13 third downs.

The arm of the redshirt freshman Penix, who wasn’t available for the OSU contest, played a big part. But the offense, as a whole, was just more efficient versus the Spartans.

First down efficiency played a major role. Against the Buckeyes, the Hoosiers averaged 4.3 yards per first-down play, but they only picked up four or more yards on 9 of 26 first downs. IU’s first-down average jumped to 6.3 yards per play versus MSU, including 24 out of 33 first-down plays going four yards or more.

Production on first down leads to more manageable third-down situations. OSU forced the Hoosiers into 12 plays of third-and-7 or longer, but IU cut that number to six at MSU.

“We trusted the plan, trusted each other, and just executed,” DeBoer said.

The 31-point offensive output at Spartan Stadium was all the more impressive because Penix didn’t practice every day leading up to the game, and freshman left tackle Matthew Bedford was in his first career start.

Now the IU offense has a chance to explode versus a Rutgers squad that is last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (36.2 ppg) and 13th in total defense (428.8 ypg).

“Every game is an opportunity, and this is the next one,” senior guard Simon Stepaniak said. “Going into this one, it’s exciting because of what we showed off at Michigan State and how powerful and aggressive this offense can be. It’s scary for other teams but it’s exciting for us.”

Penix, in particular, has had an additional week to get himself physically and mentally right. He has been brilliant, when available.

In two and a half games, Penix has completed 69.6 percent of his passes for nearly 270 yards per contest. His completion percentage would rank third in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s Jack Coan (74.6) and Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan (70.3) if he had the attempts to qualify.

Penix talked earlier this week about DeBoer intentionally making things challenging in practice, giving him routes that won’t match up well against a particular coverage scheme.

“He pushes me a lot,” Penix said. “Sometimes, he puts me in bad situations in practice just to see what I’m going to do, see if I’m ready for the reads, and I always stay on top of that.”

The goal is for practice to be just as hard, if not harder, than the game itself. Penix has enough confidence to not to be frustrated by less-than-ideal circumstances in practice.

“That’s what you want to get to, having a young guy, you are trying to balance it and I think Coach (DeBoer) has taken the right approach,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “I think it’s caused him to perform at a high level on game day. Sometimes he looks better in a game than he does in practice, just counting catches or execution. You always want to make it hard on your guys.”

Rutgers (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten) may not, on the surface, appear to present much of an obstacle for the Hoosiers (3-2, 0-2), but Saturday will be as much about a mindset as anything.

IU has to continue to execute.

“We are going to have to fight for this one,” Allen said. “I know that and I believe that, and our guys understand that.”

4 STORYLINES

1. Gains on the ground.

Indiana has gained 112 total rushing yards in Big Ten contests versus Ohio State and Michigan State, but this is a different kind of conference opponent. Rutgers is allowing 199 rushing yards per contest, worst in the league, which means the Hoosiers may be able to finally break out on some long gains versus a Big Ten opponent. Maryland gashed the Scarlet Knights for an 80-yarder last week. IU’s current season-long run is a 24-yarder versus Ball State.

2. Make the Knights throw it.

Rutgers’ offense lost two key pieces when quarterback Artur Sitkowski and running back Raheem Blackshear shut it down for the season following Chris Ash’s firing. But the Scarlet Knights still have their leading rusher, Isaih Pacheco (353 yards), and their new quarterback, redshirt freshman Johnny Langan (22 carries, 87 yards), likes to run with the ball. Bring numbers versus the run game, and Rutgers could easily stall. Langan has completed 14-of-26 passing for the season and has thrown two interceptions.

3. Force some turnovers.

This is another area where the Hoosiers haven’t thrived as they would like, but they should have their chances today. Rutgers has turned the ball over 11 times this season (eight interceptions, three fumbles), while IU has forced just three takeaways (one fumble, two interceptions). Just as Cam Jones was able to turn some momentum for IU with a pick-6 versus UConn, this is a game where the defense should have an opportunity to make a big play or two.

4. Take care of business.

This is a slogan more often reserved for non-conference games, but this is that kind of Rutgers team. IU is heavily favored for a reason. But it’s all the more reason for the Hoosiers to take this one seriously. This is the first in a stretch of four games where IU can get close to (or achieve) its goal of bowl eligibility. The Hoosiers have to be mature enough to realize, if they give an underdog a chance to hang around, anything can happen. They have to take care of business early, put it away, and get some momentum heading into back-to-back road games with Maryland and Nebraska.

By the numbers

-8: Turnover margin for Rutgers, worst in the Big Ten (11 turnovers, 3 forced).

3: Career double-digit reception games for Whop Philyor, a program record, after a 14-catch effort vs. MSU.

3.3: IU’s yards per carry average. Rutgers is allowing 4.9 yards a rush.

13: Number of FBS kickers yet to miss a field goal, including IU’s Logan Justus.

84.5: Michael Penix Jr.’s adjusted completion percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. Ranks fourth in the country.

One comment

  1. IU scored some points and even though experimented some, offense hardly erupted. However, IU did what they were suppose to do.
    Covered point spread and a win. IU looked good which means IU looked good against Rutgers.

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