B1G 5: Ohio State's biggest threat? It's not Michigan. It's Tom Allen and Indiana
College football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest subjects in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G reality
Tom Allen has been through this before. So yeah, he’s not overwhelmed by the moment.
“I’ve coached in the two best divisions in college football,” Allen says. “We’ve learned from where we were.”
Let me translate that for you: Indiana isn’t going anywhere.
For those who believe Indiana is a fun story that will soon end, I say this: Everyone thought the same thing about Ole Miss nearly a decade ago.
Then Hugh Freeze and his staff – Allen was linebackers coach and special teams coordinator from 2012-14 – built something unique in Oxford, something that grew from nothing and by Year 3 became a team that, like it or not, had to be dealt with.
By Year 3, Ole Miss forced itself on the SEC West Division, including a program-defining win over college football king Alabama in 2014, Allen’s last season in Oxford. That game led to the first of two straight New Year’s 6 bowls for the Rebels.
A year later, after another win over Alabama and a top 5 ranking, only an unthinkable play in an overtime loss to Arkansas – a 4th-and-24 conversion on a lateral – kept the Rebels from playing for an SEC Championship.
So those who believe Indiana – while playing in a Big Ten East Division with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State – can’t win the division haven’t seen what Allen is building in Bloomington.
It’s eerily similar to what Freeze built at Ole Miss – minus the eventual meltdown. It begins with a dual-threat quarterback (see: Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly) who can stress defenses with the pass and run, and is supported by an opportunistic defense that can rush the passer and thrive in man coverage.
“There’s no doubt we’re doing some of the things here that we did there,” Allen said. “We can point to what we were part of there, and say, hey, it can be done.”
Convincing players and coaches, and getting everyone aligned on what can be, is often the largest obstacle to overcome.
Players can spot genuine and fake by a country mile. They know what’s real and who’s blowing smoke.
It’s hard to argue with tangible, hard evidence – which makes the buy-in quicker and more impactful.
When Allen was named head coach at IU in December 2016 after serving as interim coach when Kevin Wilson was fired for alleged mistreatment of players, the idea was moving toward a player’s coach who could calm the waters.
The IU administration got so much more.
They didn’t panic after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, didn’t panic as the Big Ten losses piled up. Then Michael Penix Jr. took over at quarterback to begin the 2019 season, and the last piece of the puzzle was set in place.
Were it not for a shoulder injury midway through last season, the Hoosiers likely would’ve won more than 8 games – and might have even won 10 games had Penix played against Penn State and Tennessee in the bowl game.
Patrick Ramsey, a 3-year starter at IU, transferred to Northwestern for a reason – and it had nothing to do with the coaching staff or wanting to win. He left because Penix was IU’s quarterback of the future, and everything would be built around him.
That was Penix leading a wild comeback against Penn State in the season-opener, including the crazy athletic 2-point conversion to win the game. It was Penix throwing for 342 yards and 3 TDs (0 INTS) in a big win over Michigan.
That’s two B1G East Division heavyweights down, two more to go. And wouldn’t you know, it may as well be the hard way: back-to-back road games against Michigan State and Ohio State beginning this weekend.
“It would be foolish to bet against that team right now,” a Big Ten coach told me. “Don’t kid yourself, they’ve got dudes; that defense is the real deal. And they’ve got that mojo off the field that you can manufacture. Stuff like that has to be real.”
Four years ago when Allen took the job, he spoke about players and coaches connecting on a rare level off the field. It an era of constant cynicism, the anagram he developed looked corny and contrived. But boy, has it worked.
Love Each Other, he told his players. Love each other when you’re winning and when you’re losing; when you wake up in the morning and when you fall asleep at night.
“Everything after that,” Allen says, “takes care of itself.”
Allen was addressing his team after the win over Penn State last month, and broke down when explaining his love for his team.
Two weeks later, after another win over another B1G heavyweight, players screamed, “We love you!” at Allen before he could say a word.
Each time, the locker room erupted in joy. L.E.O.
Don’t count out Indiana. Don’t think the impossible can’t be come the improbable.
2. Where does Michigan go from here?
The easy thing to do is blame Jim Harbaugh. He built this Michigan program, he has to live with it.
No matter how long he decides to stay.
But in these troubling times in Ann Arbor, the best thing to do is look at what’s good. There’s one answer: quarterback Joe Milton.
Harbaugh, the coach who should be embattled but isn’t (the UM administration loves him), finally, in his 6th year, has a quarterback. Milton is everything you want in a bigtime college quarterback: size, speed, arm talent, toughness, resiliency.
The only problem is time. He has started all of 3 career games, and all things Go Blue wants answer now. Yesterday, if possible.
Let it play out, let him breathe and play over the next 6 weeks of the season and see what it looks like in late December.
Harbaugh has proven he can develop quarterbacks – he beat USC as a 40-point underdog with walkon QB Tavita Pritchard, and pulled Stanford from the depths of college football with Andrew Luck – and can do the same with Milton.
This team will be playing its best ball by mid-December when the Ohio State game rolls around. Milton is surrounded by impactful skill players (WRs Ronnie Bell and Cornelius Johnson, TB Hassan Haskins, TE Erick All), and Michigan shouldn’t have a problem scoring points.
Now, the defense. It’s brutally average and already has lost star DE Aidan Hutchinson (ankle) for the season. They’re not equipped in the secondary to play the type of aggressive, blitzing scheme that coordinator Don Brown likes to use.
Brown can’t continue to ask his secondary to cover in man situations while he uses exotic blitzes to get pressure. Michigan is giving up too many big plays, and too many 3rd-down conversions (87th in the nation, 43.48% of 3rd downs converted).
That, more than anything, is how Harbaugh will be judged the remainder of the season. The problem is no longer quarterback, it’s the defense.
But when you’ve meandered through five seasons of losing to your biggest rival and splitting six games with your state rival, the bar continues to move when it comes to analyzing what’s right and what’s wrong.
No matter how long Harbaugh decides to stay.
3. Falling apart
Of all the possibilities of where the season could go, no one could’ve imagined things this desperate at Penn State.
And we’re only getting started.
You want desperate? Check out the next 3 opponents, who – after 3 weeks of watching the Lions stumble in 3 games – are each legitimate threats to take Penn State to debilitating depths.
November finishes with games at Nebraska, Iowa and at Michigan. Three desperate former B1G heavyweights.
At this point, it doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the ball, Penn State needs better quarterback play. Sean Clifford was primed for a breakout season as a second-year starter but isn’t remotely close to playing the way did at the end of last season.
Clifford’s completion percentage is down from 2019 (59.2 to 56.6) his average per attempt is down (8.3 ypa to 7.0) and he nearly has as many interceptions this season (5) as he did all of last season (7).
“My god, he’s a different player,” a Big Ten coach told me. “He looks like he’s pressing every single play. Like he has to play perfectly every play. That’s a huge burden to carry.”
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll – and one big thing.
1.Ohio State: The last time we saw Ohio State in College Park, the Buckeyes needed overtime to beat Maryland. This one will be over by halftime.
2. Wisconsin: Hey, look, it’s Wisconsin, back on the field (maybe). At this point, QB Jack Coan may be healthy again by the time Wisconsin plays another game.
3. Indiana: Tom Allen gave his beloved defense to Kane Wommack last year, and the Hoosiers are playing stingy and creating turnovers. Just like Kane’s dad, Dave, did all those years in the SEC.
4. Northwestern: The Wildcats have one of their “underestimate us at your peril” seasons when the defense is the focal point. This year’s unit has given up 36 points in 3 games, and is No. 18 in the nation in total defense (314 ypg.)
5. Purdue: Aidan O’Connell has played better than anyone expected. Now he gets the Northwestern defense, which has 8 interceptions in 3 games and is giving up an average of 191 passing yards a game.
6. Iowa: A huge, gut-check win for the Hawkeyes. This is the most talented West Division team not named Wisconsin. A stretch of 4 winnable games begins this weekend at Minnesota, and includes games at Penn State, vs. Nebraska and at Illinois.
7. Maryland: Look, we’d all like to think in some Pollyanna world that Maryland, at home, can muster enough offense with QB Taulia Tagovailoa and make it interesting against Ohio State. We can dream, can’t we?
8. Michigan State: New coach, new process. The loss to Iowa – after an emotionally-draining win over Michigan – was predictable. The defense, coach Mel Tucker’s specialty, has significant issues.
9. Michigan: This season plays out one of two ways: Michigan sucks it up, plays hard and beats Wisconsin to turn it around. Or Michigan gets blasted and a Brady Hoke-type season is closer to reality.
10. Penn State: Pointing the finger at Clifford is easy, but check out the Penn State defense that has top 20 talent: 109 points allowed in 3 games.
11. Minnesota: P.J. Fleck is talking about poop. Really, poop. They use it as fertilizer in Minnesota, he says. So maybe this early season of poop can fertilize his team and help them grow. His words, not mine.
12. Nebraska: We can talk all we want about changing a culture and playing with mean intent and playing for each other. You know, the Nebraska way. I’ll stick with this: Huskers are 1-7 in their last 8 games, with their only wins since 2019 against South Alabama, Northern Illinois, Illinois, Northwestern and Maryland.
13. Rutgers: I like what Greg Schiano is doing at Rutgers. They’re competitive; they’re playing with some juice. They’re limited at quarterback, and not all that athletic defensively. But they’re playing hard.
14. Illinois: The next 2 weeks (at Rutgers, at Nebraska) are it for Illinois. Lose both of those games, and 0 for the season is a distinct possibility.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Iowa (-3) at Minnesota
- Ohio State (+26) at Maryland
- Indiana (-7.5) at Michigan State
- Penn State (-3.5) at Nebraska
- Wisconsin (-2.5) at Michigan
Last week: 3-1 (one cancelation)