Bowl eligibility dangles in front of IU football as it prepares for a matchup against Nebraska on Saturday.
This is uncharted territory for IU. With five wins and five games to go, this is the earliest chance the Hoosiers have at becoming bowl-eligible in 12 years. For IU head coach Tom Allen, the dynamix has been a little different than the past two seasons.
“You talk to any of our players, there's no mention of winning six," Allen said. "They understand and we talked about this, this morning, that this is the biggest game of the season because it's our next game."
Even with the excitement surrounding IU’s opportunity to punch its ticket to the postseason, the Hoosiers will enter Saturday with a few big question marks.
The biggest question for the Hoosiers will be whether redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will be available to play. At the end of the first quarter against Maryland, Penix took a big hit that knocked him out of the game as junior quarterback Peyton Ramsey had to take over the reins of the Hoosiers’ offense the rest of the way.
The Hoosiers’ offense came out guns blazing with Penix, scoring on their first two drives but cooled off once Ramsey entered the game. In just over a quarter of play, Penix threw for 141 yards and a touchdown while Ramsey only accounted for 193 yards and a touchdown in the remaining three quarters.
Another question IU will wait to answer until closer to Saturday’s game is whether fifth-year senior Hunter Littlejohn will be able to start at center. Against Maryland, the already banged up IU offensive line had to do even more shuffling as junior Harry Crider had to move from left guard to center and senior Mackenzie Nworah had to go from being the backup right guard to starting on the other side of the line at the empty left guard spot.
“We practiced that situation a lot throughout camp and in the spring,” Crider said. “We didn’t have that exact combination but we’ve got versatile guys, and they’re happy wherever they go.”
Despite all of the shuffling on the offensive line, the Hoosiers only allowed one sack and four tackles for loss. So if IU can start to get back some of its starters on the line, that number should shrink even further.
IU isn’t the only team with questions entering Saturday’s contest.
Just like the Hoosiers, Nebraska also doesn’t know who will be under center. Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez didn’t play two weeks ago in Nebraska’s last game against Minnesota due to a leg injury and once again will be a game-time decision for the Cornhuskers.
Martinez is the type of quarterback that could potentially cause trouble for IU’s defense as he is just as comfortable running the ball as he is throwing.
“Martinez is a special player,” Allen said. “It all runs through him. He's extremely athletic, can throw it, can run it, understands their offense.”
Beyond just the threat of Martinez, the biggest battle for the Hoosiers may be the environment they step into at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Nebraska has been able to sellout Memorial Stadium every game since 1962, the longest active streak in the NCAA.
“Obviously it will be exciting to go into an environment their fans and university has been able to create,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “My dad had the opportunity back in Southern Miss — he was the defensive coordinator at Southern Miss — to go there, I think it was 1999, and said ‘it was one of the most fun environments.’”