On this week’s episode of “IU beats a surprisingly underwhelming opponent by simply not totally screwing up,” the Hoosiers traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, as the No. 10 school in the nation.
I’m still not entirely sold that only nine teams are superior to IU, but I can rest assured knowing Michigan State is not one of those teams.
It isn’t easy to dominate an adversary when you turn the ball over twice in five drives and fail to score a single point in the second half, but even at their sloppiest, the Hoosiers might as well have been squaring off against a Pop Warner roster.
It goes without saying the Spartans hit a few hurdles months before the game began. Retooling the offense was always going to be an obstacle for new head coach Mel Tucker. After a pandemic cut offseason preparations down to virtual nonexistence, Tucker’s road to success was all but blocked off.
Whatever cohesion Michigan State developed this summer fizzled out quickly Saturday when junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was hastily benched after two interceptions in favor of the equally ineffectual redshirt freshman Payton Thorne.
Of course, it’s hard to match the degree of chemistry head coach Tom Allen has cooked up in Bloomington. I would roll my eyes at Allen's “Love Each Other” slogan if I weren’t genuinely convinced there is more unconditional compassion in the Hoosiers’ locker room than the majority of American marriages.
IU’s cohesion may have been its clearest edge over Michigan State, but it also posed the much more distinct advantage of having better players. I’m not going to mock the Spartans’ immensely skilled athletes for no reason, but they looked completely outclassed Saturday.
Throughout the year, the Hoosier offensive line has improved enough that I no longer cross my heart and say a prayer whenever the often-injured sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. drops back to pass.
When Penix does throw, he has an embarrassment of riches in his receiving core to choose from. Senior wideout Whop Philyor stole Hoosier fans’ hearts last year, but now senior Ty Fryfogle is grabbing our attention with hands apparently made of flypaper.
Meanwhile, IU’s defense has evolved from pleasantly competent to quietly strong, and now just plain mean. Despite what my narrow understanding of physics tells me is possible, the Hoosiers somehow seemed to squeeze four defenders simultaneously through a one-man-wide gap in the Spartan offensive line on numerous plays.
However, what truly broke Michigan State were turnovers. The Spartans fully embraced the season of giving, serving up three interceptions and a fumble to the Hoosier defense.
Anyone who watched this matchup knows IU didn’t perform anywhere close to its best.
The Hoosiers are yet to run the ball with any modicum of confidence, and most quarterbacks with two functioning legs look like Michael Vick scrambling past their front seven.
Fortunately, IU didn’t have to be invincible to stop Michigan State. It just had to be slightly more durable than a wet napkin in a rose bush.
At a certain point, we have to accept that being ranked in the top 10 doesn’t automatically make you some titan-killing dynamo of talent. Seeing such a low number next to IU’s name on the scoreboard is a bit strange, but some team has to fill that spot in the polls.
If traditional powerhouses are going to be ravaged by opt-outs and penalties or not be able to play thanks to a rash of coronavirus cases, I see no reason why an extremely solid Hoosiers squad shouldn’t receive a little hype.
And after four games, I can confidently say IU has earned the prestigious honor of becoming Ohio State’s most impressive victory of the season next week.