As we close in on game day, we continue our deep dive into what #17 Indiana brings to the table this weekend by going directly to the source. Earlier in the week, we recapped pre-season comments from SB Nation Indiana blog Crimson Quarry managing editor Mike Miller. Those touched on key players coming back for a team that finished just outside the top-10 last season, as well as those who have moved on, and explored the team’s full season outlook.
BHGP: When Hawkeye fans think of Indiana we tend to picture high-powered offenses with defense a secondary consideration. But in 2020 the Hoosiers boasted a top-20 scoring defense. Some key pieces have moved on, but IU has plenty of talent returning in 2021. What should Iowa fans expect out of the Hoosiers on the defensive side of the ball week 1?
CQ: Ever since Tom Allen arrived at Indiana as defensive coordinator in 2016, the Hoosiers’ program identity has gradually — and deliberately — shifted to the defensive side of the ball. The defense emphasizes takeaways, while using a mix of coverages and ideas to confuse and bait opposing offenses. It’s been a remarkable transformation for anyone who, like you say, remembers the Kevin Wilson era. Now, IU has not just one All-American defender, but two. Corner Tiawan Mullen has been outstanding not only in coverage, but as a contributor to the pass rush, too. (As an aside, keep in mind that IU corners combined for 5.5 sacks in eight games last year, so the corner blitz is very much part of that defensive identity.) Linebacker Micah McFadden has also developed from a player who was, at one point, a two-star recruit in at least one database to a team captain and trusted man in the middle of IU’s defense. The Hoosiers have a new defensive coordinator this year in former Georgia defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. But make no mistake, this is Allen’s defense. His fingerprints are all over it. And while Warren will be poised to add his own wrinkles, this group will still operate with Allen’s guidance.
BHGP: On the other side of things, Indiana put up nearly 29 points per game in 2020 on the back of a stellar season out of 2nd Team All-Big Ten QB Michael Penix, Jr. That season was cut short with an ACL tear. What is the status of the Hoosiers’ star QB and what should we expect out of this Indiana passing game that returns All-Big Ten players at WR and TE as well?
CQ: Here’s the thing ... if Penix can stay healthy, he’s demonstrated he can be one of the best quarterbacks not only in the Big Ten, but in the country. However, he’s suffered season-ending injuries in each of his first three campaigns in Bloomington, and his ability to stay on the field will be the No. 1 question hovering over the Hoosiers all fall. As of now, everyone seems to be encouraged with the progress he’s made from the ACL tear he suffered last November. We’ll see, I suppose, just how accurate the reports are when things get underway on Saturday. While IU has some depth at quarterback, there is such a noticeable difference in the offensive ceiling when Penix is in the backfield. Plus, guys just seem to emotionally respond to him. He makes such a difference. Having Ty Fryfogle, last year’s Big Ten receiver of the year, back for one more year gives Penix a reliable and dangerous target on the outside, while Miles Marshall is another big outside target who IU hopes to see take another big step forward this season. In the slot, meanwhile, Florida State transfer D.J. Matthews will look to replace the production of Whop Philyor. Really, IU’s depth at receiver is quite something — and I’m not sure we’ve seen it to this degree in some time. Jacolby Hewitt and Javon Swinton represent a second wave of options at the position, while freshmen Jaquez Smith and Malachi Holt-Bennett — both of whom were four-star recruits — could find their ways into the mix before long. At tight end, Peyton Hendershot leads the group. He’s a pass-catching tight end who, despite earning all-league honors, didn’t have a great year in 2020. Drops were a consistent problem for Hendershot, who will have plenty to prove this season.
BHGP: Staying on offense, one of the biggest question marks for this Iowa defense is the interior of the defensive line. What can Hawkeye fans expect out of the Indiana running game and can the Hoosiers expose Iowa’s lack of experience at defensive tackle?
CQ: Great question. For me, the line play on both sides of the ball (and for both teams) is going to be fascinating to follow on Saturday. Honestly, IU’s running game has felt pretty stagnant for a couple of years now. Much of that, it seems, is directly related to the consistently underwhelming performance of the offensive line. This offseason, IU’s coaching staff regularly went out of its way to note that last year, due to repeated stops and starts related to the pandemic, there just wasn’t enough time on task to implement more advanced and creative blocking schemes. So they went vanilla — and the results reflected as much. The hope is that another year of experience for the boys up front, coupled with a more normal offseason of training and preparation, will lead to better rushing results this fall. USC transfer Stephen Carr, a former five-star prospect in 2017, is now the lead back, winning a competition for carries during fall camp thanks to a well-rounded skill set and an advanced understanding of position coach Deland McCullough’s approach. Carr and McCullough previously worked together at USC before McCullough latched on with the Kansas City Chiefs. The return of McCullough, who recruited and coached former IU stars Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard during his first stint with the program from 2011 to 2016, adds to the intrigue of the running game. I’m still not sure exactly how good it’ll be. But it’ll at least be interesting to see what the new guys can do to help that side of the offense yield more useful production.
BHGP: Under Tom Allen, the Hoosiers have been able to build a foundation that appears to have raised the floor for the program longer term. One of the things we always hear about from Allen is “LEO”. It’s on Indiana’s helmets. But it’s also a town in Indiana where Iowa has coincidentally tried to recruit a couple prospects. This is all very confusing to Hawkeye fans. Can you explain what LEO is and how that’s helped translate to on-field success if it has?
CQ: Ha! The confusion is understood. Basically, the LEO mantra means: Love Each Other. It goes back to Allen’s time as defensive coordinator in 2016. When he came to Bloomington, he was tasked with fixing a defense that was one of the absolute worst units in the nation. Just awful stuff, really. I’ll never forget one of your old friends, Jake Rudock, and Michigan coming into Memorial Stadium in 2015 and throwing for, like, a billion yards and six scores. It was brutal. Anyway, Allen had to fix that. He started with the culture rather than the scheme. Sure, there was a fix for the latter (he implemented a 4-2-5), but he recognized that these players had been mentally beaten down by all the failures of previous seasons, on top of continually hearing exactly how bad they were. So he aimed to not only form meaningful, heartfelt connections between himself and his charges, but he encouraged players to do the same with each other. Invest in one another, he told them, and great results can follow. I know, I know. It sounds kind of trite. But great results did follow, in large part because players responded to his message. They genuinely liked their coach and wanted to play and perform for him. When Kevin Wilson — a polar opposite of Allen — was ousted after that season, Allen took that message to the entire team. The buy-in seemed to be there immediately, though the results took some time to materialize. All the while, you had this team that really seemed to pull together. So basically, long story short, LEO is another way of saying come together and put the team first. Love each other. A lot of coaches have used a form of that mantra over the decades, but it does feel unique with Allen. He’s a genuinely good man who deeply, deeply cares about people. I got to know him while covering the program for the Bloomington Herald-Times and can confidently say that he is exactly who you think he is. He’s a very empathetic person striving to lift people up. It’s sort of like in any other walk of life: his people respond to him because they know he cares. He’s also demonstrated that he’s a pretty decent football coach, which helps, too.
BHGP: Ok, prediction time. The line on this one has moved around a bit, but most of the books have Iowa favored by between 3 and 5 points with an over/under set around 46. How do you see this one shaking out and what’s your final score prediction?
CQ: I’ve been all over the place on this one. Seriously. A month or two ago, I was consistently picking Iowa. Then, I changed my mind. And again and again the cycle has continued. The other day, I did a podcast and picked IU in a close one (as Vegas seems to believe). Ultimately, I just feel like IU has the edge on defense and at quarterback. But openers are always squirrelly, so who knows? I think it’ll be a good one and I’m pumped to see Kinnick rocking — I swear I’m not pandering. It’s my favorite stadium in the Big Ten. For our purposes here, though, I’ll go IU 24-20.
So there you have it. Thanks so much to Mike Miller of Crimson Quarry for taking the time, even as he was in the process of transitioning to a new position in sport journalism. Best of luck to Mike on the new adventure. Here’s hoping he does well in all things except predicting the Iowa-Indiana matchup.