After Indiana’s latest triumph, the best story in college football keeps getting better
Tom Allen was just trying to do a postgame interview, but his players couldn’t help themselves.
“Recruits,” Indiana left guard Dylan Powell said, “come play for this man! Best coach in America!” Teammates Stevie Scott and Jamar Johnson were right behind and echoed that statement. “Best coach in the nation right here!” they shouted into the camera.
Who can argue with them? With No. 12 Indiana’s 14-6 win over No. 16 Wisconsin, the best story in college football just keeps getting better. With all due respect to BYU, Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina and Iowa State, Indiana’s ascension—which is continuing without its star QB—through one of the toughest divisions in college football to legit contender for a New Year’s Six bowl and the Big Ten Championship Game (if Ohio State is unable to play next week) is remarkable.
Written off after Michael Penix Jr. tore his ACL last week, Indiana (6-1) showed that it wasn’t a death sentence. The way Indiana played on Saturday wasn’t at all surprising to those who have followed the team closely this season. To those just getting acquainted with the program Allen has built, now you know: Indiana is a unique team that is far more than just one player.
This video perfectly epitomizes Tom Allen and Indiana football this season. pic.twitter.com/BdxQr17BbS
— Ben Stevens (@BenScottStevens) December 5, 2020
The program that hadn’t been ranked in the top 10 since 1969 showed once again why it belongs there in 2020, even without Penix. If the Hoosiers can win at Wisconsin with backup QB Jack Tuttle leading the way, is there a B1G team besides Ohio State that you would pick against Indiana? By the way, that 7-point loss to Ohio State looks even better after Ohio State obliterated Michigan State on Saturday.
Vegas, which pegged Indiana as 14-point underdogs against the Badgers, apparently didn’t realize that Penix does not play defense. And though Jack Tuttle is untested, he is a former 4-star recruit who was an Elite 11 QB in high school with the likes of Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Tuttle played about as well as you could’ve asked against a Wisconsin team that entered Saturday ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense. And Tuttle’s line (13 of 22 for 130 yards and 2 TDs) didn’t tell the whole story. For one, Miles Marshall dropped a wide open 57-yard TD on a nice throw from Tuttle. In the fourth quarter, Tuttle threw for 2 first downs to extend drives and help flip the field. There was no drop-off from Penix to Tuttle, who used the same sort of back-shoulder throws to allow his receivers to either make a play or draw a flag.
Some in the national media and in Vegas may not remember, but Indiana has won without Penix before. He was in and out of the lineup last year, starting just 6 games due to injuries, yet Indiana still went 8-5 for its best season since 1993. And while Penix has been a media darling this year, Indiana has won in spite of his poor play several times this season. Look no further than last week against Maryland, when Penix was 6 of 19 passing in the 27-11 win. Penix entered Saturday ranked 65th in the country in QB rating.
The backbone of this team continues to be the defense. It’s a special group that now has an interception in 10 straight games, dating to last season. Jamar Johnson picked off his 4th pass of the season to add to Indiana’s national-best 17 interceptions. Micah McFadden, arguably the B1G’s top linebacker this year, added 2 more sacks for a unit leading the Big Ten. Embodying the spirit of this never-say-die bunch, he bounced back from an apparent injury to sack Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz just plays later as the Badgers were marching toward a game-tying score in the final minutes.
It’s the little things, like a well-disguised corner blitz from Tiawan Mullen, or a perfectly placed punt to the 1 by Haydon Whitehead, that have helped Indiana beat Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin in the same season for the first time since 1945. With a Purdue squad that has lost 4 straight up next in a battle for the Old Oaken Bucket, Indiana is likely to head into Champions Week at 7-1. If Michigan’s COVID issues persist and Ohio State is unable to play next week, Indiana would be a heavy favorite against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game.
While this Indiana team is far from perfect—Pro Football Focus recently ranked Indiana’s offensive line as the worst in the Big Ten this season—it is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why it’s been able to overcome the occasional poor performance from Penix, or a bad game on the ground. That’s why it continues to defy expectations.
If we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that it will take more than one injury to derail the best story in college football.