The Indiana Hoosiers are off to their best start in 25 years, bringing a 5-2 record to Lincoln to face the Huskers. That’s not to be completely unexpected, though, with games against Ball State (34-24), Eastern Illinois (52-0), UConn (38-3), Rutgers (35-0) and Maryland (34-28) to open the season. The Hoosiers got whacked like everybody else by Ohio State, losing 51-10, but Michigan State needed a chip shot field goal with five seconds left to beat Indiana at home last month. The margin of victory widened to 40-31 with a defensive touchdown scored after the Hoosiers fumbled during the Stanford band lateral drill on the game’s final play.
In that game, Indiana struggled to run the ball, gaining only 70 yards on the ground, but redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr. completed 33 of 42 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns. 14 of those completions went to junior receiver Whop Philyor for 142 yards and two touchdowns. Penix has started five games this season, missing the Ohio State and UConn games due to a shoulder injury that he may have re-aggravated last week against Maryland. Head coach Tom Allen says the two injuries are not related, but that Penix is questionable and probably a game-time decision for this week’s game. In Penix’s absence, junior Peyton Ramsey returned to action. For the season, Penix has completed 69% of his passes for 1,232 yards and ten touchdowns with four interceptions. Ramsey has completed 74% of his passes for 843 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions. Ramsey is more likely to run than Penix is, though Penix is averaging 6.8 yards per carry on 17 carries.
Running back Stevie Scott is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 79 yards per game rushing this season. His 108 yards on 16 carries last week against Maryland probably was his best effort of this season. (I’m putting an asterisk with his 164 yard performance against Rutgers.) Backup Sampson James has just 85 yards rushing on 31 carries this season.
Junior Whop Philyor has emerged as the Hoosiers’ top receiver, catching 43 passes for 559 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Peyton Hendershot is second on the team with 27 catches for 351 yards and four touchdowns. Last year’s top two receivers, Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale, have caught 21 and 18 passes respectively, but have combined for seven touchdowns through the air.
Indiana ranks in the middle of the Big Ten in most defensive categories: sixth in scoring defense (20.9 pts/game), seventh in total defense (297 yards/game), ninth in rushing defense (128.3 yards/game) and fourth in pass defense (168.7 yards/game). A couple of interesting stats: the Hoosiers rank 13th in the Big Ten in interceptions (only three in six games) and penalties (64.7 yards per game).
Linebackers Raekwon Jones and Micah McFadden (6’2” 232 lbs.) lead the Hoosiers in tackles with 32 and 28 respectively. McFadden, who won the middle linebacker position at the start of the season, leads Indiana with six tackles for loss. True freshman cornerback Tiawan Mullen (5’10” 170 lbs.) has moved up the depth chart, passing up senior Andre Brown. Mullen’s five pass breakups leads the Hoosiers, joining sophomore Jaylin Williams (6’0” 179 lbs.) with a youth movement in the secondary. Williams’ emergence has meant fewer snaps for Raheem Layne, who was IU’s second leading returning tackler from last season.
These two stats might summarize just how much Indiana has improved this season.
Buddy sent me this to show the improvement Indiana has made year to year. pic.twitter.com/aRb1WtU5ZH— Mike'l Severe (@MikelSevere) October 24, 2019
Many Husker fans probably had this game in the “should win” during the offseason. But with Nebraska underperforming to admittedly over-optimistic expectations and Indiana much improved, this game looks like a key defining point in the season, especially after the beat-down suffered in Minneapolis two weeks earlier. Will Nebraska tank, ala 2017, down the stretch? Or will they battle back despite questions at the offensive skill positions? I think this is a game that depends more on how the Huskers respond than the opponent, with all due respect to the Hoosiers.
After the jump, you’ll find the reposting of the preseason preview of the Indiana Hoosiers.
Perhaps the strangest anomaly of Big Ten scheduling for Nebraska is the fact that the Huskers have only faced Indiana once in Nebraska’s first eight seasons in the conference. By the time Indiana travels to Lincoln for the first time, Ohio State will have played in Lincoln three times. Heck, Nebraska has completed home-and-home series with UCLA, Miami, Oregon and now Colorado before Indiana returns their 2016 game in Bloomington. Last time Indiana played in Lincoln, it was 1977 and the head Hoosier was Lee Corso.
Let’s be honest; Indiana really is a blank slate for Husker fans to this point. Not that Indiana has given the college football world much to pay attention to. While they haven’t been as awful in recent years, such as Rutgers, they haven’t had a winning record since 2007. In back-to-back 5-7 seasons under head coach Tom Allen, the Hoosiers have only beaten Rutgers (twice), Illinois and Maryland in conference play. That being said, most of those conference losses have been relatively close and competitive. In a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, that’s a positive sign.
Indiana returns junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey (6’2” 211 lbs.) who started all twelve games last season and four in 2017. Last season, Ramsey completed 66% of his passes for 2,875 yards and nineteen touchdowns and thirteen interceptions. Ramsey also rushed for 354 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 3.2 yards per carry. Redshirt feshman Michael Penix (6’3” 206 lbs.) was making a strong bid to take over the starting job last season until he tore his ACL in his third game. To that point, he had completed 62% of his passes for 219 yards and a touchdown, and also carried the ball seven times for 45 yards. Utah transfer Jack Tuttle (6’4” 211 lbs.) also arrived this spring and frankly, any of the three could end up being the starter by the time they board the plane to Lincoln.
Sophomore running back Stevie Scott (6’2” 235 lbs.) rushed for 1,137 yards and ten touchdowns last season, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. His six games topping the century mark set a school record for a freshman. Incoming freshman Sampson James (6’1” 212 lbs.) should challenge for playing time along with redshirt freshman Kristian Pechac (5’11” 210 lbs.); like at quarterback, established starters could end up being pushed by new players.
Senior receivers Nick Westbrook (6’3” 215 lbs.) and Donavan Hale (6’4” 225 lbs) each caught 42 passes last season for 590 and 508 yards respectively last season. Juniors Whop Philyor (5’11” 175 lbs.) and Ty Fryfogle (6’2” 210 lbs.) will be battling to join the starting lineup in 2019. Philyor caught 13 of his 23 receptions against Michigan State last season, while Fryfogle caught 29 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns. With six of last year’s top eight receivers returning, whomever ends up being the quarterback should have experienced options to target.
The biggest concern for Indiana on offense will be on the offensive line. Senior left tackle Coy Cronk (6’5” 321 lbs.) claimed the starting job as a true freshman and only injury has kept him out of the lineup. He’ll be joined by senior right guard Simon Stepaniak (6’4” 321 lbs.), who’s started 18 games the last two seasons and senior center Hunter Littlejohn (6’3” 307 lbs), who started as a sophomore but was passed up on the depth chart last season by a graduate transfer from Miami. The big question will be whether huge sophomore Caleb Jones (6’8” 360 lbs.) is ready to take over at right tackle this fall.
Prior to Tom Allen’s arrival in Bloomington, Indiana’s defense was the worst in the Big Ten - and it wasn’t even close. In Allen’s first year, the points allowed went from 37.6 per game to 27.2, and the yards allowed went from 509 per game to 380. With just three returning starters last year, the numbers ticked up, but with seven returning starters in 2019, the numbers allowed should be better.
Up front, junior defensive tackle Jerome Johnson (6’3” 290 lbs.) was the Hoosiers’ leader in sacks with 3.5 as a sophomore. He’ll be joined in the middle by sophomore nose guard Juan Harris (6’3” 350 lbs.) who transferred to a junior college last season to get some playing time, but returned to make an impression this spring. Senior defensive end Gain Everett (6’3” 262 lbs.) led the Hoosiers with 5.5 tackles for a loss last season.
Senior weakside linebacker Reakwon Jones (6’2” 237 lbs.) will be joined by sophomore Thomas Allen (6’3” 245 lbs.). Jones is viewed as an emerging team leader who will allow sophomore middle linebacker Thomas Allen (6’3” 245 lbs.) to blossom. The son of the head coach, the younger Allen totaled 28 tackles as a key backup last season. He’s expected to play a key role this season if Indiana’s defense is going to bounce back.
Three starters return in the secondary, with junior “husky” (nickel back) Marcelino Ball (6’0” 218 lbs.) being the leading returning tackler from last season with 59 (five for a loss). Bruce Feldman of The Athletic listed Ball at #9 on his 2019 “Freaks” list for his speed. Senior cornerback Andre Brown (6’0” 200 lbs.) has been a fixture in the starting lineup throughout his Indiana career; his six pass breakups led the defense last season. Junior cornerback Raheem Layne (6’1” 195 lbs.) is the second leading returning tackler on the defense. Expectations are high for two sophomore safeties to make big jumps in 2019. Devon Matthews (6’2” 203 lbs.) had 20 tackles as a true freshman backup, but the guy to keep an eye on is Bryant Fitzgerald (5’11” 205 lbs.) who backed up Ball last season but still led the team with three interceptions.
Battling in the Big Ten’s east division, Indiana is going to have to take care of business against Maryland and Rutgers before turning their attention to getting a win or two against their West division foes (Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue) to get to bowl eligibility. It’s very possible with that schedule that despite improvement, Indiana could end up with a fifth straight seven-loss season. If I had to bet, I’d say they get to a 6-6 record and go bowling.