Michael Penix Jr. was certainly a picture of progress for Indiana’s passing game at Rutgers.
The football was zipping out of the lefty’s hand with velocity and precision. As it sliced through the Rutgers secondary, the ball found the hands of IU’s receivers, on time and with regularity.
The fingers on those hands just weren’t ready to grip it.
Saturday was a poignant reminder that passing is a two-way street. A unit that was slow out of the gate against Penn State, partially because of Penix’s misguided balls, stumbled again in the first quarter versus Rutgers. Just for much different reasons.
But just as they eventually ignited versus Penn State, there was a turnaround for IU’s passing game. Penix, able to complete just three of his first 10 passes at Rutgers, finished with a 17-of-26 mark for 238 yards and three scores. His throws always gave IU a chance to move the chains. It just took IU’s receivers a moment to recover from a half-dozen first-quarter drops.
“We gotta catch the ball,” IU tight end Peyton Hendershot said postgame. “Mike’s been (throwing) the ball good for us. We gotta make those plays. If we make those plays, we’ll have our offense rolling and doing good things in the Big Ten.”
In the end, what matters are points on the board, and this was IU’s 11th game with 30 or more points since 2019. The only Big Ten team with more during that span is Ohio State with 13 games of 30-plus.
There was just bound to be some rust on IU’s aerial attack coming into the season. Not only had Penix not played since early November 2019 because of a collarbone injury, but the Hoosiers couldn’t hold a single 7-on-7 throwing session this offseason because of the pandemic.
Not only that, but IU is breaking in a first-time offensive coordinator, Nick Sheridan.
Penix seemed to return to form in the final 1:42 of regulation versus Penn State, as well as overtime, and he just continued to roll at Rutgers. His receivers just needed a second to get their mitts ready for his fastball.
Hendershot, in particular, felt a pass from Penix slipping through his fingertips for the second time in as many weeks Saturday. It had an eerily similar feeling to his PSU miscue on a critical third-and-4, because his Rutgers drop, again, came on third down, and, again, it came on an in-breaking route across the middle.
For an All-Big Ten tight end who had just a couple of drops in 2019, it was a tough walk back to the sideline.
“I was thinking about it too much,” Hendershot said. “It wasn’t instinct.”
Luckily, he had more opportunities Saturday. Hendershot started the Hoosiers’ first scoring drive with an eight-yard catch on first down. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound redshirt junior also hauled in a 14-yard reception on the very next drive, which led to another field goal.
After Rutgers cut the lead to 23-15, Hendershot played a key role in the Hoosiers’ response. He caught an 11-yard pass on a tight end delay route, getting IU down to the 2-yard line. Penix found Hendershot again in the end zone, padding a 30-15 cushion.
“I just felt lost in the game, I got going,” Hendershot said. “I didn’t think about it, and I think the catches just started coming, and making it easier on myself.”
Hendershot’s final tally was six catches for 34 yards on eight targets. Whop Philyor, who had a couple of drops of his own, finished with five receptions for 137 yards.
Expectations were certainly high for an offense that returned All-Big Ten targets like Philyor and Hendershot, as well as Penix behind center, and Stevie Scott running the ball. The offensive line still needs to find its footing on a more consistent basis, especially on the interior, but IU’s skill players seemed to sync up on Saturday.
“I think we’re all trying to force things, because we have a bunch of starters coming back, trying to make too many plays,” Hendershot said. “Just let the game come to us. I think we did a good job of that.
“When our time comes, we made our play.”
And the defense …
While the offense appeared to make much-needed strides Saturday, IU’s defense continued its course.
“We’re not a bend-don’t-break philosophy. I don’t believe in that,” IU coach Tom Allen said. “We want to be aggressive. We want to create pressure on the quarterback.”
IU did that in a variety of ways Saturday, via defensive line stunts and second-level blitzes. But the Hoosiers weren’t just sending their linebackers.
Multiple times, defensive coordinator Kane Wommack was sending cornerbacks, specifically Tiawan Mullen. The sophomore, who didn’t register a sack in 2019, came up with 2.5 takedowns of Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral.
Rutgers finished with 248 yards of offense, equally split between 124 yards passing and 124 rushing.
“Mixing it up on him, giving him different looks, created a lot of havoc back there,” linebacker Micah McFadden said.
More important than the Hoosiers’ four sacks were the defense’s three interceptions, which springboarded the offense before Penix and his receivers were connecting.
A blitz from Cam Jones forced one errant ball. Another came courtesy of a rush from defensive tackle Sio Nofoagatoto’a. Across the unit, key plays were being made, including a swat of a fourth-down pass by defensive tackle Demarcus Elliott.
There had been talk all preseason about the IU defense taking a leap in 2020, after playing so young in 2019. The hype seems to be bearing itself out on the field. Junior safeties Devon Matthews and Jamar Johnson are flying all over. Mullen, Reese Taylor, and Jaylin Williams were all making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
There were some untimely penalties, which gave Rutgers life on its scoring drives. But there is a confidence building within IU’s defense, and the Hoosiers believe in it.
“When we play together as one, we have one of the top defenses in the nation,” Taylor said.
“We can do anything right now.”
Oh, the onsides kick
Charles Campbell continues to be reliable in the kicking game, hitting all three of his attempts at Rutgers.
Hayden Whitehead is still a veteran, reliable punter.
But in terms of the Hoosiers’ kickoff and kick return units, there is still some work to be done.
Last week, it was a “power squib” that didn’t have any distance that nearly doomed IU. This week, the Hoosiers weren’t able to recover an onsides kick — an error that didn’t have overly disastrous consequences at Rutgers, but a mistake IU knows it can’t make a habit.
Allen has talked about giving the special teams phase extra attention, and it may still need his eyes and ears for a little longer.
Then again, it’s still just Week 2, and the No. 13 Hoosiers are 2-0. Better to not think themselves perfect heading into a matchup with No. 25 Michigan.
“There are a whole bunch of things we have to get better at,” Allen said. “That helps because the film doesn’t lie.”