Indiana football defensive back Jordan Grier had an opportunity for a momentum-shifting play.
Trailing by 10 with a little over 13 minutes remaining in last Saturday’s clash with Rutgers, the Hoosiers desperately needed a jolt. Rutgers junior quarterback Gavin Wimsatt took a quarterback keeper to the left side of his offensive line and faced off with Grier about two yards shy of the first down marker.
Wimsatt sharply cut to his right, blowing by Grier in the process and racing to the end zone for an 80-yard score — one that put the finishing touches on the Scarlet Knights’ 31-14 victory. Wimsatt tallied 143 of Rutgers’ 276 yards on the ground in a performance that left the Hoosiers’ defense fraught with questions.
At 2-5 overall and 0-4 within the Big Ten, Indiana technically remains in contention for bowl eligibility, but it faces one of its most challenging tasks of the season at noon on Saturday against No. 10 Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania.
The Nittany Lions are coming off a 20-12 defeat to No. 3 Ohio State — their sole loss of the season. Here’s three things to watch when Indiana faces off with Penn State.
Will Indiana take more shots downfield?
It’s no secret the Hoosiers’ offense has deployed a conservative approach thus far. Part of that has stemmed from the inexperience of freshman quarterbacks Tayven Jackson and Brendan Sorsby and struggles with the offensive line.
Indiana’s offense is tied for second to last in the Big Ten with six passing touchdowns and ranks in the bottom five in the conference in total passing yards per game and completion percentage. Senior Cam Camper, junior Donaven McCulley and sophomore Omar Cooper Jr. pose threats as capable downfield receivers, but the Hoosiers’ signal callers haven’t taken the chances.
“We feel like we got some receivers that can do that,” head coach Tom Allen said Monday regarding creating chunk plays on offense. “There’s no doubt, the more chances we have to create a chunk play, the higher percent you have of scoring points.”
The Hoosiers’ offensive attack has been primarily reliant on methodically working the ball down the field. Against Penn State’s stout defense, which ranks second in the defense in points allowed per game (9.71), Sorsby and Indiana will need to find opportunities to strike quickly.
A struggling Hoosiers’ run defense
Through seven games, Indiana’s defense ranks dead last in the conference in rushing yards allowed per game (174.4) and yards per carry (4.7). The front seven has been pushed around by opposing offensive lines and missed tackles in the opened field, and these struggles have been magnified as of late.
Against a diverse Penn State rushing attack which averages 181.3 yards per game, second in the conference, Indiana’s defense faces perhaps its toughest challenge yet from a rushing standpoint. Avoiding 3rd and short situations, which allowed Rutgers to continually devastate the Hoosiers on lengthy drives, will be paramount.
Part of the solution, co-defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri said, stems from a combination of scheme adjustments and ferocious mentality from defenders.
“To me it’s technique, fundamentals and fight,” Guerrieri said Monday. “Got to beat blocks, got to tackle efficiently.”
Behind a Penn State offensive line featuring arguably the nation’s top offensive tackle in junior Olumuyiwa Fashanu, sophomore quarterback Drew Allar hasn’t just had the luxury of clean pockets, but sophomore running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen have found ample running room, as well.
Cleaning up avoidable mistakes
Against Rutgers, Indiana’s special teams unit made two costly mistakes. The first, junior James Evans’ punt was blocked by a defender who ran cleanly through the Hoosiers’ offensive line, and the Scarlet Knights took it the other way for a touchdown.
On the second, sophomore running back Jaylin Lucas muffed a punt on Indiana’s 23-yard line with just over 30 seconds left in the first half, allowing Rutgers to tack on a field goal before the break. Both instances were avoidable blunders Allen and the players lamented after the game.
Facing off against a more talented team who won’t beat itself on Saturday, the Hoosiers can’t afford to make operational mistakes, be it penalties or gaffes on special teams.
“Can’t put our team in that position,” Allen said. “To me it’s just continued reps. Just got to make sure the right guys are out there that can get the job done at critical times.”