5 keys for Indiana to protect its No. 17 ranking against Rutgers
Indiana wants to get to 2-0 on the Big Ten season, something it has not done since way back in 1991.
And all that stands in the way is Rutgers.
The 1-0 Scarlet Knights could be improved under new (and old) coach Greg Schiano. It sure looks that way after they beat up on Michigan State in their opener. Indiana better be ready to go.
Here are 5 keys for the Hoosiers:
1. Keep Penix clean
Michael Penix Jr. has the mobility to avoid the pass rush, but that doesn’t mean he should have to. Penix was sacked 3 times by the Nittany Lions on Saturday and pressured multiple other snaps, taking Penix out of his comfort zone early. And the timing throws, particularly those to the sidelines, were out of sync — early wide receiver breaks, late quarterback passes — causing Penix and the passing game to be sporadic at best.
Only late, when he rallied the Hoosiers, did Penix find rhythm, hitting 8 of his last 9 passes in regulation and overtime.
Offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan’s charge vs. the Scarlet Knights is to do everything possible to get Penix going early. Although Rutgers likely doesn’t have the same quality of pass rush as the Nittany Lions, the Scarlet Knights still collected 3 sacks in their upset win at Michigan State. Two of those came from third-down speed-rush specialist Mohamed Toure, who turned the first into a fumble at the MSU 5-yard line that led to a Spartans touchdown. On that play, Toure, an undersized 6-foot-1, 220-pounder, came from Rocky Lombardi’s blind size, beat the left tackle and was on the MSU quarterback in only moments.
IU has to slow him and the Scarlet Knights. How? Indiana’s screen game, a staple of its offense under former coordinator Kalen DeBoer, was largely missing against Penn State. Hitting Stevie Scott III out of the backfield a couple times early would cause Greg Schiano second thoughts about sending the rush.
2. Split the rush
Speaking of Scott, where was his running mate?
Part of the allure of the Indiana offense this season was the prospect of the combination of Scott, a former 1,000-yard rusher, with backup Sampson James, particularly after the latter had a breakout game (118 yards and a touchdown) against Purdue in the regular-season finale last year. But at least for a week, it didn’t materialize. Against Penn State, Scott got all but one of IU’s running back carries, going for 57 yards on his 20 attempts with 2 touchdowns. Sampson ran once for 4 yards.
Indiana netted only 41 yards rushing Saturday, the lowest total in the Big Ten for Week 1. It’ll need the combination of Scott and James going forward. But get this: Rutgers’ rush defense was actually stout vs. the Spartans, allowing only 50 yards on 39 attempts. That’s a heck of a leap from 2019 — and one that doesn’t seem sustainable for 8 more weeks — after Rutgers finished 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed (201.1).
3. Find Whop
IU’s big-play man was held in check against the Nittany Lions, with Whop Philyor catching only 5 passes for 36 yards (and a touchdown), with a long of 12.
Needless to say, Sheridan has to find a way to get him the ball.
Rutgers gave up 319 yards passing to MSU — granted, the Spartans had to rally from a 28-10 deficit — including 128 yards to Jaylen Reed and another 84 to Jalen Nailor. Maybe Philyor can break out with similar production against the Rutgers’ secondary.
4. Make Rutgers work
Credit Rutgers’ defense for creating seven turnovers — or laugh at Michigan State’s offense — but it set up a scenario in which the Scarlet Knights’ offense had easy scoring opportunities.
After Rutgers’ first drive, a 75-yarder that resulted in a touchdown, its next four TD drives covered 1, 23, 53 and 26 yards. It scored a FG after a 14-play, 54-yard drive, as well.
The Spartans were basically handing the Scarlet Knights points.
If Indiana holds onto the football — it had 2 turnovers against Penn State, a Penix interception and a fumble — then it should be in better shape. If Rutgers is going to score, then make it work; the instances the Scarlet Knights started their drive inside their own 30 resulted in 2 punts, an interception, 2 fumbles, a field goal and a touchdown (on the first drive).
5. Don’t treat Rutgers as Rutgers
When this game came out on the re-re-release of the schedule, it was circled by about every Indiana fan as a certain victory. Less so now.
Rutgers broke a 21-game Big Ten losing streak with its 38-27 victory at East Lansing. Schiano, a proven winner, has the Scarlet Knights believing they can win games, and so the Hoosiers should pay attention.
Defending the national ranking — No. 17 in the AP poll, the Hoosiers’ highest appearance there since the early 90s — should be IU’s No. 1 priority Saturday.