The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (2-1 overall) are finally back on the field this weekend and will be taking on the No. 10 Indiana Hoosiers (5-1 overall) at Camp Randall Stadium. IU is having one of their best seasons in memory but their star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. got hurt against Maryland last week and is now out for the season.
We had some questions about the Hoosiers and Mike Miller of our SB Nation cousin Crimson Quarry was kind enough to answer them for us.
The Hoosiers defense causes a lot of havoc with their ability to force turnovers. What has Kane Wommack done to turn the secondary into such ballhawks?
It really is something to behold. For the longest time, folks in Bloomington merely wanted the defense to be competent. What they have now is a defense that is actually good — no, great — and I think what you’re seeing is the result of equal parts scheme and personnel.
First, Wommack and IU coach Tom Allen, himself a defensive specialist, have prioritized deception. The entire defense, but especially the secondary, has done a great job of disguising coverages. That’s allowed them to do some really interesting and unique things with their blitzes. With IU’s defense, it feels like pressure could come from anywhere, at any time.
It’s also worth noting that, for the first time in forever, IU actually has some really fast athletes in the defensive backfield. Not only that, they have a bunch of them. Depth is better than it’s ever been, and with that, Wommack has done a nice job of creating packages that fit the skill sets of his own personnel and match what the opposing offense is doing.
Has the rushing game’s struggles this year for IU been more of a regression from star RB Stevie Scott or an offensive line issue?
I’m not exactly sure how to accurately diagnose the problem, but it feels like a combination of things. On one hand, it doesn’t feel like the offensive line has been all that effective. It’s kind of been all over the place, both in terms of the ability to block for the run and create an acceptable pocket for the pass. And with a so-so O-line, it doesn’t seem that Scott has been able to create much on his own.
Scott is a bowling ball as a runner, and once he starts heading north, it seems difficult for him to shift a tick or two east or west. So it’s probably partly Scott’s own limitations, and also the limitations of those around him. The run game was much better last week against Maryland, but everyone runs on Maryland. So that feels like fool’s gold more than anything.
However, it was notable that IU tried a couple different things against the Terps. The Hoosiers went to the Wildcat probably a dozen times during the game, and Scott scored all three of his touchdowns on direct snaps. They also got some good production from freshman Tim Baldwin. More on him in a minute.
With new starting QB Jack Tuttle under center will the Indiana offense change much? What are you expecting from him in his first start?
It will be really interesting to see how it all unfolds. When you have a quarterback who doesn’t have many in-game reps to rely on, you’d probably want to lean on your run game, right? But as you noted, that just hasn’t been a thing Indiana has been able to do this year. It’s just not who they are. So I still think IU is going to give its quarterback some freedom to throw. With Tuttle, talent isn’t really the question. Rivals rated Tuttle as the No. 5 pro-style passer in the 2018 class, so the thought is that he should be able to make the necessary throws.
But one of the things that made Michael Penix Jr. so special this year was his fearlessness. He wasn’t fazed by pressure, and there were plenty of times when he felt the heat and still completed passes anyway. Penix also has a really quick release, so he was able to make things happen up to the very last possible moment. So with Tuttle, his lack of experience is really the big concern here, and I’m sure that Wisconsin — much like IU will try to do — will be drawing up plays to rattle him early and often.
If his linemen can protect him — which feels like a big “if”, given some of the struggles we’ve seen against strong fronts — he’s got the tools to make all the throws. And when you consider IU’s running troubles this season, it’ll be important that he does.
Who are two under the radar players, one from each side of the ball, who could make a big difference against Wisconsin?
Just this week, Pro Football Focus labeled IU middle linebacker Micah McFadden as the highest rated linebacker in the Big Ten, so it feels weird to call him an under-the-radar player. And yet he still seems to be a fairly unheralded guy, though it’s nothing he’s unaccustomed to. I think at one point, he was a two-star prospect coming out of high school — the same high school that Tom Allen’s son, Thomas, and receiver Whop Philyor attended in Tampa, Fla. — so Allen saw something in him that few others did. And he was right. McFadden might not be a physical specimen, nor will he ever be the quickest guy at his position, but he’s a really fundamental player who takes great angles and has really developed inside of IU’s strength and conditioning program. You’ll probably see him dart through the A Gap a time or two on Saturday.
On offense, true freshman running back Tim Baldwin had a breakout performance last weekend against Maryland, running for more than 100 yards. A former Michigan commit, Baldwin entered the season slotted third on the depth chart, but he’s a really hard worker and a consistent practice player, so IU’s coaching staff has rewarded him with touches as the season has gone on.
He appears to provide a really nice complement to Scott’s power running style, and he showed really good burst and lateral agility in appearances against Michigan State and Maryland. Again, everybody runs on Maryland, so I think the optimism with Baldwin is somewhat guarded at the moment. But even so, just having a shiftier, quicker runner in the backfield might help the Hoosiers gain at least a little more traction moving forward.
Game prediction and Indiana’s MVP please.
This is a spine-chilling series for IU football fans. While the Hoosiers have regularly challenged teams like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State over the years, Wisconsin is the school that IU traditionally and structurally just doesn’t match up with. And we’ve all seen the Hoosiers get absolutely steamrolled over the past 20 years.
I think it’s a little different this year, especially because this IU team looks like it’s legitimately good, but I’d feel a lot better about IU’s chances if it weren’t introducing an inexperienced quarterback to its offense this week. I think Indiana’s defense has the capacity to keep it close, but until I see Tuttle play in situations that matter, I don’t know what to realistically expect from him. Let’s say Wisconsin, 27-13.
As for IU’s MVP, I’ll go with receiver Whop Philyor. If Indiana is to keep this game closer than I’m predicting, I think a guy like Philyor, who can make a lot of things happen when he gets the ball in space, will have to be a big factor.