When the final version of the Big Ten’s 2020 football schedule was released, one immense challenge was swapped for another.
A long-planned road trip to Wisconsin was pushed back to the seventh week, but preseason-ranked No. 7 Penn State and No. 16 Michigan were bound for Bloomington in the first three weeks. The Hoosiers hadn’t beaten the Wolverines in 24 straight contests. They were just 1-22 all-time versus the Nittany Lions.
But here the No. 10 Hoosiers sit, with a 3-0 record, defying all outside expections, but none that they held for themselves.
How did they get here? Let’s take a look back at some common themes from the Hoosiers’ fast start to the 2020 season.
Taking it away
IU coach Tom Allen will point to three words as the cornerstone of his defensive philosophy: tackling, takeaways, and effort.
Coming out of an unconventional offseason, there were concerns about how prepared any defense would be. But IU, for the most part, has been a solid tackling team. At 367.5 yards allowed per game, the Hoosiers rank 38th nationally in that category.
But where they have really shined is in that second word, takeaways. With eight in three games, that’s the program’s best start in the takeaway department in the 21st century. In a few years, IU has forced seven in three Big Ten games. But never eight.
And they have come at crucial times. In the opener versus PSU, when the offense was slow out of the gate, the defense set up their counterpart for easy scores. Michigan hadn’t turned the ball over at all in its first two games, and the Wolverines went three quarters without an error versus IU. But down the stretch, quarterback Joe Milton erred, and interceptions by Jaylin Williams and Devon Matthews sealed the win.
The first pick by Williams was just a clearly errant throw, but the Matthews interception was forced by solid coverage and a late blitz by linebacker James Miller. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound redshirt sophomore, who had dropped into coverage, sprinted 15 yards to shoot through a gap and put a hit on Michigan’s signal caller.
“I feel like the linebackers and the d-line did a great job,” Williams said. “The job was going to be on us, the secondary, to get big stops and make great plays.”
IU’s secondary has been in position to make more plays because the Hoosier front has allowed them more chances. Some of that is pass rush, but the defensive line and linebackers are also putting offenses in more difficult spots by stopping the run early.
Michigan had only 13 rushing yards Saturday. That’s the least an opponent has accumulated versus the Hoosiers since 2002, when their defense held William and Mary to minus-32 on the ground. In Big Ten play, Saturday was the fewest rushing yards by an opponent since Purdue managed minus-8 yards in 2001.
Through three games, IU now ranks second in the conference in interceptions (7), fourth in sacks (8), and fifth in opponent’s third-down conversion percentage (35.7). The Hoosiers are also giving up 4.74 yards per play, which is tied for 19th nationally.
A defense that played young in 2018 and ’19 just seems to be maturing across the board in 2020. At 38th nationally in yards surrendered per game, Allen believes the Hoosier defense has the potential to climb even higher.
“We talked this year about being a top-10 defense, not just top 25,” Allen said. “I thought this team had a chance to be special on defense.”
Reese Taylor, the junior corner, has his eyes set on an even higher bar for the IU defense.
“We should be No. 1 in the country, in my eyes,” Taylor said. “Just because of how hard we play, how fast we play, the mentality we play with. I feel like our confidence is high right now, and it has to stay high. The way we play is incredible right now.”
Run, when needed
On the other hand, the Hoosiers’ rankings in the run game don’t look very good right now.
They rank 13th in the conference in rushing yards, at 89.3 per game. That’s sagged IU’s overall offensive ranking, down to 12th in the Big Ten, at 325.7 yards per outing.
At the same time, IU has been able to run the ball in clutch situations. Against PSU, Stevie Scott crashed into the end zone shortly after takeaways set the Hoosiers up in the red zone. On Saturday, IU was very much using the pass to set up the run on Michigan, but the Hoosiers eventually collected a season-high 118 yards on the ground. Of those, 78 came in the second half.
In fact, 14 of the Hoosiers’ final 15 plays of the game were rushes by Scott or Sampson James. After Williams’ interception return, IU’s running back duo was able to pick up the 29 yards necessary to cross the goal line and make it 38-21. They also helped burn the final 5:55 of regulation after Matthews’ pick.
“Against that defense, our o-line played their tails off,” IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr. said, “and they made sure they got the job done.”
The offensive line’s performance was especially significant, because they were missing starting left guard Mike Katic. But the Stanford grad transfer, Dylan Powell, who has been rotating in with Katic, seemed to hold up well on his own.
Because of their ability to run when needed, the Hoosiers are still one of 23 teams in FBS football that have scored points on every one of their red-zone opportunities. They are 16-of-16, with six passing touchdowns, six rushing scores, and four field goals.
“We ran the football when we had to run the football,” Allen said. “To me, that’s balance. Run it when you need to.”
Penix still shines
There was, expectedly, some rust in the IU passing game in the opening quarters of the season. Penix was almost a year removed from his last game. There was no 7-on-7 passing this offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Penix knocked the rust off versus PSU, it seemed, reverting to spectacular form in the closing moments. The receivers had to knock some more off at Rutgers, moving past drops. But against Michigan, the Hoosier passing game was a picture of perfection.
Ty Fryfogle hauled in a one-handed grab on the sideline. On one pass, Penix snuck one over the middle to Whop Philyor on third-and-11, through an incredibly tight window, between two Michigan linebackers and a safety. TIght end Peyton Hendershot continues to be productive, with three first-down catches on a scoring drive.
On his first two touchdown passes, Penix was able to take advantage of a hard count, drawing Michigan defenders offside with a clap, and then taking the snap and hitting Fryfogle and Miles Marshall in the end zone for jump balls.
“I always peek to the sideline to make sure the flag is being thrown,” Penix said. “All coach says on those plays, just give your guys a chance. We’ve got great receivers, and I just had to give them a chance, and you see what they can do with that opportunity.”
Following a career-high 342 yards from Penix, IU is now 8-1 in games the redshirt sophomore has started. The one loss? It came on the road at Michigan State, where the Hoosiers are now headed for their fourth game.
Win, and they can be 4-0 in conference for the first time since 1987. Beat the Spartans, and the Hoosiers have a chance to go to 5-0 versus Ohio State, which the program hasn’t done since 1967.
Thanks to three early wins, it’s still possible.