Indiana Daily Student

High-flying Western Kentucky offers Indiana football’s defense a chance to stabilize

<p>Senior defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball celebrates his interception in the first quarter of the game against the University of Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. Indiana will travel to face the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers on Sept. 25, 2021, in Bowling Green, Kentucky.</p>

Senior defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball celebrates his interception in the first quarter of the game against the University of Cincinnati on Sept. 18, 2021, at Memorial Stadium. Indiana will travel to face the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers on Sept. 25, 2021, in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Indiana football did not expect to be 1-2 when it headed to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to face Western Kentucky University. 

It didn’t believe it would be fielding questions on if junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. would be the starter going forward, even if a change was never on the table. 

“We’re definitely not where we expected to be,” senior linebacker Micah McFadden said in a press conference Monday. “But, we know that all of our goals for this season are still out in front of us. I think our guys are ready to attack and get this win.”

Indiana wants to find a rhythm before a potential third top-10 matchup of the season when it heads to University Park, Pennsylvania, to face No. 6 Penn State. 

But first, it has to handle an explosive Hilltopper offense.

“We’re going to have to be a defense that’s locked in, that communicates great,” defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said. “Expect anything, tempo — they do it all.”

The Hoosiers will need their secondary to come prepared against the Hilltoppers’ passing offense, which is first in the country behind senior quarterback Bailey Zappe’s 445 total yards per game. 

Western Kentucky is first in the country in third-down efficiency, converting 11 of 16 attempts, and third in its 218.41 passing efficiency behind the Army Black Knights and Coastal Carolina University. For comparison, Army has only thrown 13 passes in three games compared to 76 in two for Western Kentucky.

The Hoosiers’ defense is 38th in the country in passing yards per game. Opposing teams have averaged 183.7 yards against the Indiana defense, including two top-10 teams in Iowa and the University of Cincinnati. But after leading Power Five schools with 17 interceptions last year, the Hoosiers have one in three games.

Allen said Indiana needed to win the turnover battle to create a better chance against Cincinnati.

“We created more explosive plays than them by quite a bit, but we lost the turnover ratio,” Allen said. “You cannot turn the football over. If you do, you'd better get a whole lot more takeaways than you're giving up, and we did not.”

McFadden’s return to the field will also benefit the Hoosiers. After he was ejected for a targeting penalty late in the first half against the Bearcats, the defense collapsed and allowed the Bearcats to score 10 points before the half.

“A guy like that goes down and you lose him, somebody has got to step up and make a play,” Allen said. “He's obviously a huge part of our defense and does a phenomenal job, but other guys need to step up. As a defense, we had other opportunities to still finish the game.”

Warren said McFadden’s presence was missed beyond the playmaking because of his leadership and decision making. Warren added that the defense doesn’t revolve around one player. 

Thanks to an NCAA rule added before the 2020 season, McFadden was able to stay on the sidelines post-ejection instead of heading to the locker room. 

“It was tough not being out there,” McFadden said. “But I trust each and every guy that plays on the defense and on that field. I was happy that I could be out there and watch them play.”

For an Indiana team in desperate need of a bounce back performance against Western Kentucky after a deflating loss to Cincinnati, it will need to return to its 2020 form and answer questions about its rough start. 

“As tough as this start is, how cool would it be for the Indiana Hoosiers to turn around their season?” McFadden said.

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