BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – They never said it would be easy.
After a 60-minute affair that looked like an IU runaway in the first quarter, the Hoosiers (2-2, 0-1 B1G) had just enough in the tank to outlast the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (1-2) at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
The Hoosiers executed at their sharpest at the beginning of the contest. WKU won the toss, elected to kick, and IU took the opening drive 11 plays, with Stephen Carr punching it into the end zone. The Hoosiers mixed in five runs with six passes to take the 7-0 lead.
After IU recorded a three and out on defense, the offense found paydirt again after another 11-play drive that combined six runs with five passes. Michael Penix Jr., who was in control all night, found the end zone with a QB sneak.
Between the two scoring drives, Indiana’s most noticeable offensive player in the early going, D.J. Matthews Jr., suffered an injury while attempting to return a punt. After trainers tended to him for at least three minutes, Matthews Jr. walked off the field, putting little-to-no pressure on his left leg. Matthews led the team in receptions (11) and receiving yards (150) through three games.
Matthews’ fellow WR teammate, David Ellis, also limped off the field during the first quarter of the contest. No update was offered on Matthews’ or Ellis’ status for next week’s contest at Penn State. A smorgasbord of Hoosier receivers had to step up in place of Matthews and Ellis, from Jacolby Hewitt to Miles Marshall to Camron Buckley.
Western Kentucky’s passing offense, which led the country in yards per game going into Saturday’s action, was limited by IU’s stingy secondary. QB Bailey Zappe missed on his first three throws, but started heating up on the second drive of the game. Zappe connected on his first six throws of the series, which ended with RB Adam Cofield punching it in from a yard out. WKU trailed by seven.
From that point on, the Hoosiers and Hilltoppers were engaged in a tight battle, as the Hoosiers never held a lead of greater than 13 points the rest of the way. IU’s offense was able to move the ball down the field, but repeatedly were forced to settle for Charles Campbell field goals. Campbell made all four of his three-point attempts on the night, continuing his perfect season.
Drops plagued Indiana all night. Matthews saw one go through his hands on the first play of the game. Camron Buckley, Tim Baldwin, and Ty Fryfogle also saw passes that they should have reeled in hit the ground. WR coach Grant Heard will certainly notice that and attempt to fix that problem going into Big Ten play.
Outside of the drops, IU’s receivers consistently separated themselves from WKU’s secondary. Fryfogle was too much of a physical force during the contest, bringing in 10 catches for 98 yards. Fryfogle had 11 catches and 126 yards all season coming into the game. Peyton Hendershot was an effective option for Penix all night, as Hendershot recorded six catches and 94 yards, just short of his career highs in both categories (seven and 95, respectively). Hendershot’s first catch of the affair gave him 100 in his career.
After the Hoosiers gave it away four times against No. 8 Cincinnati last week, not including a turnover on downs, IU did not throw it away during tonight’s matchup. Penix played interception-free football, and while Baldwin and Matthews coughed it up, Hoosiers recovered the pigskin.
Indiana’s defense left a lot to be desired, especially in the second half. Zappe finished the night 31-of-44 passing, with 365 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t sacked once. IU’s defense, which has emphasized takeaways since the start of the Tom Allen tenure, didn’t force one Hilltopper turnover. WKU finished with 458 total yards and four offensive touchdowns. IU had given up just two such TDs to Iowa and only three to Cincinnati.
One defensive player that stood out was LB Micah McFadden. After his controversial removal from the game last week, due to targeting, McFadden made plays from sideline to sideline, thwarting WKU’s offense when he could. McFadden finished with a team-high 12 tackles, including one noteworthy TFL when he brought down WR Jerreth Stearns for an eight-yard loss, as WKU was developing a trick play.
RB Stephen Carr looked in a different class tonight, taking a beating on his way to another 100-yard rushing game as a Hoosier. His second touchdown of the game gave IU a late two-score cushion that helped guide the team to a win. Penix to Fryfogle was the critical connection it was back in 2020. On the final drive of the game, it was a 10-yard missile to Fryfogle over the middle that clinched Indiana’s win, prompting the Hoosiers to go into victory formation.
Indiana’ stays on the road to take on undefeated Penn State, who stand 6th in the AP Poll before this weekend’s action. IU has never won in Happy Valley. The game will kick off at 7:30 PM ET on ABC.