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Saturday, June 22
The Indiana Daily Student

sports football

COLUMN: Indiana football looked pretty solid despite barely beating Western Kentucky

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With a narrow loss to the No. 8 University of Cincinnati still looming large in the rear view mirror and a prime-time matchup at No. 6 Penn State on the horizon, Indiana football’s showdown against Western Kentucky University on Saturday was easy to overlook.

In a battle of the most made-up sounding mascot names, the Hoosiers beat the Hilltoppers by a somewhat concerning 33-31 score. 

Did Indiana underestimate Western Kentucky? Honestly, despite the score, it didn’t seem that way.

The Hoosiers didn’t commit the unforced errors that have plagued them in 2021. Their defense didn’t surrender many chunk plays, and their offense had arguably its best outing so far this season. 

That said, a 2-point margin of victory might feel small for a team that began its campaign with Big Ten title aspirations. But before you dismiss Indiana’s performance as a letdown, you should consider a few key factors. 

First of all, it’s easy to forget that this was a road game. You don’t simply stroll into the lion’s den that is Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium at Jimmy Feix Field and expect to walk out with an easy victory. While the mild hum emanating from the bleachers suggested otherwise, the Hoosiers were not playing in a particularly friendly environment. 

Every time Indiana junior kicker Charles Campbell trotted out for one of his four field goals, he had to stare down a small but passionate student section and, of course, the rapidly gyrating hips of Western Kentucky’s notoriously nightmarish mascot Big Red. Imagine a piece of cherry Dots candy that was melted slightly, whether from the heat of the stadium lights or from the fires of whichever circle of hell from whence it was summoned.

I don’t want to fill this column with excuses on the Hoosiers’ behalf. The offensive line continues to struggle, in this case surrendering three sacks. 

Regardless, the unfortunate recipient of those tackles, junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr., played quite well. He threw several accurate passes. He wasn’t exactly torching the Western Kentucky secondary with an onslaught of deep shots, but he didn’t need to. In fact, it was pretty refreshing to witness a version of the Indiana offense that didn’t require Penix developing pitcher’s elbow from repeated overuse. 

Much like I and many viewers of Indiana football have repeated ad nauseam, Penix is capable of leading a very efficient offense. For a variety of reasons, however, that hasn’t manifested against any unit fiercer than the Hilltoppers’ 92nd-ranked defense. 

For one, his wide receivers haven’t been the pigskin magnets many expected them to be. Drops are not an official statistic in college football, so I can’t fully quantify the regularity with which Penix’ receivers have let him down this season, but it’s enough to notice. 

Combine those intermittent drops with often uninventive play calling and Penix’s accuracy issues, and the result is an offense for which the first down marker occasionally seems unreachable. While the Hoosiers moved the ball relatively efficiently, they ultimately turned too many touchdowns into field goals to win convincingly. 

However, it should be noted that for perhaps the first time this season, graduate student running back Stephen Carr looked comfortable navigating traffic. Carr has exhibited impressive field vision every week, but Saturday night was the first time he turned that vision into appreciable yardage, picking up 109 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.

As I put my thoughts into words, I can’t help but feel like I’m spouting a series of contradictions. How can a 2-point win over Western Kentucky be impressive? How can Penix’s best performance in nearly a calendar year still feel underwhelming?

Again, I turn to the two words I seemingly use every week — not sure. 

Nevertheless, if it’s true the hills have eyes — and I know they do because Big Red’s were staring unblinkingly into my soul all night — all they saw was a victory for Indiana. 

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