After months of waiting, the 2020 Big Ten football season is here and for Indiana, it begins with an opportunity to knock-off a top-10 team in the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Indiana opens the season Saturday against No. 8 Penn State inside Memorial Stadium and it is a chance for the Hoosiers to get over the hump. The Hoosiers have been competitive in a lot of the past contests against top teams. IU’s biggest struggle has been not being able to put everything together and beat the top teams in the league.
However, after an 8-5 season in 2019, expectations have risen around the program and just being competitive is not enough. Head coach Tom Allen said in a zoom call on Monday that beating a top-25 team is one of his team’s goals.
“When you talk about what is next for our program, it is winning these games,” Allen said. “Obviously, being close is no longer acceptable, the goal, or the objective whatsoever. It is to find a way to finish and win these games.”
Indiana is 1-22 against the Nittany Lions with their lone win being in 2013. Last year’s contest in University Park, Pa. saw the Hoosiers’ fall short once again in a 34-27 defeat. Key turnovers and big plays by Penn States’ offense aided to Indiana’s defeat. That has been one of the problems for the Hoosiers in these type of games. The team finds themself in striking distance, then timely miscues erupt and halt their chances for a big win.
Miscues such as Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford breaking a big run for a touchdown or timely fumbles on offense and special teams, cannot happen if IU wants a victory.
“When we take care of things the right way, obviously, there are a lot of variables that go into a game,” Allen said. “The bigger the game is, the heightened attention to detail needs to be in all three phases.”
Indiana’s defense must limit big plays
Questions have already been posed about Indiana’s defense with defensive back Marcelino Ball’s season ending ACL injury. Redshirt junior Bryant Fitzgerald has been moved into the starting spot at the husky position. Allen said that the team is going to maximize the strength of their team in different ways and give other players opportunities.
Indiana’s defense gave up 371 total yards in last year’s contest. Quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 197 yards on 11-of-23 passes, but rushed for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Journey Brown added 100 yards on 21 rushes with a 4.8 average and one touchdown. Tight end Pat Freiermuth was limited in the contest, but was a key weapon for Clifford last season with 43 receptions for 507 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Bottom line is that they are a great football team,” Allen said. “Their offensive line makes them go, they have an excellent quarterback, a very talented receiver corps and arguably one of the best tight ends in the country, definitely one of the best.”
247Sports Mark Brennan reported Monday that Brown could miss the entire 2020 season due to an “undisclosed medical condition.” Brown’s status remains in question for Saturday and Penn State may look towards sophomore running backs Noah Cain and Devyn Ford to fill the void. Cain and Ford combined for 136 rushes for 737 yards.
One thing that is up in the air about the Nittany Lions’ offense is what will they look like with the addition of offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Ciarrocca spent the last three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Minnesota where the Gophers posted the third-highest scoring offense in team history.
The Hoosiers not only have to prepare for Penn State’s offensive weapons, but also have to plan for a brand new play caller who has playmakers all over the field.
“Good coordinators and smart people find creative ways to get their playmakers in space and I thought, Ciarrocca did a phenomenal job of that at Minnesota and featured the players that they had,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “I think it is a combination of seeing what their personnel is, what he has done in the past and trying to blend the two.”
Penix taking full reigns of the offense
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. did not play in last season’s contest due to injury. However, former quarterback Peyton Ramsey threw 31-of-41 with 371 yards and had three total touchdowns. Indiana out gained Penn State by 91 yards and moved was just fell just one score short. Now, Penix is back under center and his skillset can be key in this matchup.
Penix demonstrated he can play in big games last season with three touchdowns and a 159.3 passer rating against Michigan State on Sept. 28. He gets the ball out quickly and completes a high percentage of his passes at 68.8 percent last season. Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said that Penix is able to execute under pressure and that the moment is not too big for him.
“He is able to operate at the level that we all would want him to regardless of who the opponent is, what is the situation,” Sheridan said. “He is good in that regard without a doubt.
Penix has plenty of weapons at his disposal with the top-three leading receivers returning in Whop Philyor, Peyton Hendershot and Ty Fryfogle. Those three players combined for 2,228 yards and 12 touchdowns. Running backs Stevie Scott and Sampson James return to the backfield and gives Indiana the opportunity to mix things up offensively.
The offensive line has to be ready to step up against Penn State. Personnel has been shifted around with Penix back on the field. Sophomore tackle Matthew Bedford moves to right tackle after playing nine games on the left side. Bedford now has the task of protecting Penix’s blindside and redshirt junior Caleb Jones moves to left tackle. On the interior, senior Harry Crider is at center this season and there are multiple players who can be slotted in at guard in Dylan Powell, Mike Katic and Mackenzie Nworah. Protecting Penix and opening up holes in the run game will be key for an upset this weekend.
Penn State is without their leading tackler a season ago in Micah Parsons. Parsons announced in August that he would opt-out of the 2020 season and prepare for the NFL Draft.
This year’s Indiana team is a much more experienced group with talent on both sides of the ball. Wins will not come easy this season as the Hoosiers prepare for an onslaught of Big Ten teams. Year-after-year Indiana has competed against the best in the conference, but have fallen short in different ways. After all of the momentum gained from last season, the program is trending in the positive direction, and it is time for Indiana to put it all together against a top team.
“We know we are going to have to play our very best to be able to do the things we want to do against a top-10 team in the country,” Allen said. “We are really excited for the opportunity. To be able to begin Big Ten play here at home and be able to have our players, be able to exhibit, all the hard work that they put into to this.”
Featured Photo: Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics