Front-running Hoosiers leading the Big Ten in key areas

At the midway point of the regular season, Indiana football sits atop the Big Ten’s East Division.

IU is 4-0. Ohio State, idle this past week, sits at 3-0. And this next week’s IU-OSU matchup could essentially be for the East Division crown.

Quite a scenario for a Hoosier football program that had never beaten Penn State and Michigan in the same season. IU hadn’t beaten Michigan and Michigan State in the same year since 1967 — more than three years before current head coach Tom Allen was born.

The firsts just keep piling up for a first-place team, but the Hoosiers’ overall record is just one area where they lead the pack. Let’s examine a few key categories where the Hoosiers are outperforming the rest of the Big Ten.

Sacks: 12

This may be one of the more surprising, yet pivotal, reasons why the Hoosiers are winning games.

And it’s not just the sacks alone. IU has another 14 quarterback hurries this season, which ties for the most in the conference with Nebraska. If you combine hurries and sacks, only three teams in the Big Ten have 20 or more.

It’s led by IU with 26, Nebraska with 20, and Iowa at 20. All but five teams in the conference have 14 or fewer combined.

Simply put, nobody in the Big Ten is affecting the quarterback more than IU’s defense, thanks to the creative pressures defensive coordinator Kane Wommack has dialed up, and IU’s defenders answering the call.

“Coach Wommack has done a phenomenal job of just taking this system and continuing to grow it and develop it and making it better,” Allen said after IU’s shutout win over Michigan State.

This was a much-needed development for IU’s defense. Last season, the Hoosiers managed just 18 sacks in nine conference games, or two per game. IU is currently doubling that output, even without an effective blitzer in senior “husky” Marcelino Ball, who is out for the year.

Both the front and back ends of IU’s defense deserve credit, because if a team can’t cover, quarterbacks can get the ball out quickly and negate the rush. And if blitzes can’t get home, the best of secondaries will end up burnt. Everything is matching up for an attacking IU defense.

Everyone, from linemen to linebackers to defensive backs, has been able to reap the rewards of IU’s defensive rush. The secondary leads with 4.5 sacks. IU’s linebacker room has four. The d-line has 3.5, and two of those came from defensive tackle Jerome Johnson at MSU.

These sacks are also just a product of better production for IU on first and second downs, putting offenses in more precarious positions on third down. On one third-and-7 in the third quarter, Wommack sent seven blitzers at MSU’s Payton Thorne, with linebacker Micah McFadden getting home for one of his two sacks on the day.

“I just think we’re getting better on the back end and the front end, just being able to communicate and everybody knows their job,” McFadden said. “It was a simple game plan this week. Coach just let us run around and make plays and that’s exactly what we did.”

Interceptions: 10

This is another area where the Hoosiers have taken a massive jump.

Last season, they had just seven interceptions the entire season. Only three of those came in conference play.

Some of IU’s interceptions have just been bad throws by quarterbacks. But it’s the aforementioned pressure, and defensive backs just sitting in their correct spot, waiting for mistakes to be made, that has led to these game-changing turnovers.

In Saturday’s contest, sophomore corner Tiawan Mullen’s first career interception was aided by a pressure, and it was a ball thrown into double-coverage. On pick No. 2, Mullen was just sitting in his shallow, Cover 2 zone when he jumped in front of an out-breaking route.

“I just (saw) the ball and attacked,” Mullen said. “I was in the right position, with the right technique, with one of the best cornerbacks coaches in the game, Brandon Shelby. I listen to him.

“Once you listen to a coach and he puts you in the right position, all you have to do is go out there and execute.”

Add in the Hoosiers’ two fumble recoveries thus far, and they have 12 takeaways in 2020. That’s one short of their total for the entire 2019 campaign.

Jaylin Williams just logged his first game without an interception Saturday, but he’s still tied for the Big Ten lead with three picks. Mullen is now just a notch behind with two, and Reese Taylor hauled in his first interception of the season toward the end of Saturday’s win.

Not to mention, junior safety Devon Matthews is third in the conference in passes defended at six, including a game-sealing pick versus Michigan.

The defense is getting pressure, and a talented secondary is capitalizing. Mullen, who broke out last year at MSU, swatting away a team-high four passes, had a smile on his face after capturing a couple of interceptions Saturday. But those plays were special for another reason.

Rather than racking up PBUs as IU gave up 40 points and lost, his two picks came during a shutout win.

“Last year, we left a lot on the field. We gave up things we shouldn’t have gave up last year, but this year, as a unit, we talked, we played together, it was 11 strong out there,” Mullen said. “Once everybody (is) together and heading in the right direction, nothing can break.”

Passing: Michael Penix Jr., 1,070 yards

Three quarterbacks — Ohio State’s Justin Fields (222.4), Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz (201.4), and Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa (156.4) — have better efficiency ratings than Penix (136.4).

But no quarterback in the Big Ten has been more productive than the Hoosiers’ redshirt sophomore. The lefty from Tampa is the only player over 1,000 yards at the midway point, and that’s even with Penix’s somewhat pedestrian 170-yard effort versus Penn State, which, of course, finished with a flourish.

In his last three games, Penix has completed 72-of-114 (63.2 percent) for 900 yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions. Both of those picks came at Michigan State, which left Penix wanting a bit. But he also had a jaw-dropping throw or two Saturday, including a rope to Ty Fryfogle on his 65-yard touchdown up the sideline.

Penix noticed a sliver of separation for Fryfogle on a vertical route and threw it back-shoulder, just barely past the MSU defensive back, and just in time for Fyfogle to straddle the sideline, turn, and run.

“It’s just awesome having Mike,” Fryfogle said. “He can stretch defenses out, he can fit the ball in any hole. With Mike on the field, you better be alert. It doesn’t matter what route you get, it can come to you.”

Penix’s strong arm not only stretches defenses vertically, but he’s able to make sideline throws that not every quarterback can.

Still, IU can certainly improve offensively. Penix’s first interception at MSU came on a pressure, the Spartans bringing six, with just five blocking for IU. He threw up a jump ball for Miles Marshall, which his 6-foot-4 target couldn’t get. That mistake set the offense back for much of the first quarter, as they battled bad field position.

On the other hand, Penix just put up a second consecutive 300-yard outing for the first time in his career. He’s plenty hot as IU prepares to face OSU.

“Just making sure we stay locked in, just make sure we prepare the right way,” Penix said. “So when we come out here on the game field, we actually execute at a high level, and that is what we did today.”

2 comments

  1. This game isn’t a lock for OSU as IU has ways to hurt the Buckeyes. How well IU plays to their game plan and keep the pressure on OSU the better chance IU comes away with a win. IU brings a passing game to the Buckeyes that they haven’t seen this year. It will help if Ellis and Swinton are full go to help out Marshall spelling the starters and making plays. Baldwin looks like he may be ready to get some carries in games but Scott and James may limit his playing time.

    IU’ defense has athletes to compete with OSU’s offensive players but will be challenged due to Fields accuracy and running ability. OSU has a couple of receivers that will need to be controlled if IU is to win this game. OSU’s OL has been able to create any push this year so IU’s DL may create some real problems for OSU. Add in the variety of stunts IU has and OSU will be challenge to protect Fields. The big concern, I think, is OSU’s crossing routes that man coverage struggles to keep up with, now that IU is playing more zone I think they may have a few surprises for Fields and the receivers.

    The KO team is a bit of a concern since we can’t count on getting the ball deep in the end zone. IU will need to have good tacklers and cover guys on the team shutting off the efforts to set up a return.

    In this game with two top ten teams playing who will break out in IU’s passing game. The past two weeks it has been Fryfogle, will he do it again or will another receiver come up with a big game. Which defense will limit a very good offense the most leading their team to victory. Rutgers and PSU showed this could be a close game for IU and OSU, given that possibility I like the way IU handles making plays in close games this year. This could be the year IU beats OSU, Michigan, PSU, and MSU in the same year, Did I hear IU will shock the world this year?

  2. Good analysis, V.
    IU secondary has done an excellent job of playing at a good reactionary speed with confidence. One thing I notice about Fields and OSU to me though he has time and protected well and runs the ball from it all… Fields seems to take his time and is not a lightening quick fireball in my opinion. Can IU secondary play it’s best or does OSU receivers take advantage? IU will need to be productive at a couple (maybe even three) receivers and tight end with Penix accuracy vs OSU coverage if IU offensive line holds up.

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