Better or worse? Previewing Indiana’s offense in 2021
Indiana’s fortunes — again — rest with one man.
All eyes will be on Michael Penix, Jr., the sometimes-electric quarterback for the Hoosiers who is being tasked with leading IU to yet another step forward in 2021. It’ll be a challenge. The Hoosiers wowed in 2020, looking like the only team that had any chance at knocking off Ohio State and arguably finishing as the Big Ten’s second-most dangerous team. IU finished 4th in the league in scoring, at 28.9 points per game, although only 10th in yardage (at 359.5).
The bowl game thud aside — Indiana was flat in a 26-20 loss to Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl — the Hoosiers feel like there’s a ton to build on for 2021.
Yet so much rests on the health of No. 1. Penix saw his third consecutive season end early due to an injury, this one another torn ACL that forced him to the sideline for the final regular-season game and the bowl. Without him, the Hoosiers were sapped of their big-play ability, their improvisation and their moxie. Although Indiana knocked off Wisconsin in what turned out to be the regular-season finale, the offense looked pedestrian under backup QB Jack Tuttle and worse in the loss to the Rebels.
There are other questions: Can Indiana’s rushing game find its groove once again? Stevie Scott III showed flashes last season, but IU still ranked only 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yards, and Scott departed school early. The offensive line might have been partly to blame; while it was effective in pass protection, it lacked the physical push to create seems for Scott and Co. And around wide receiver Ty Fryfogle, the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year, who are the other perimeter play-makers?
Let’s play better or worse …
Key losses: RB Stevie Scott III; C Harry Crider; WR Whop Philyor
Key returnees: Michael Penix Jr., QB; TE Peyton Hendershot; OL Caleb Jones; OL Matthew Bedford; OL Mike Katic; OL Dylan Powell; OL Luke Haggard; WR Ty Fryfogle; PK Charles Campbell
Potential breakout players: WR D.J. Matthews; WR Camron Buckley; WR Miles Marshall; RB Tim Baldwin Jr.; RB Stephen Carr
Passing offense: Even
Knowing it was to face the graduation of its two most productive wide receivers after the 2020 season, Indiana had set out to replenish its receiving corps. And it did through the transfer portal — D.J. Matthews, formerly of Florida State, will fill a big hole in the slot — and with young, talented prospects.
Then IU got a boost when Fryfogle, who burst out in ’20 with 37 catches for 721 yards and 7 TDs, decided to return for his super senior season. Now, Indiana has only to make up for the departure of Whop Philyor, and though that might not be an easy task, the Hoosiers feel as though they have options. Matthews was joined in the offseason by fellow transfer Camron Buckley, of Texas A&M, who has shown the versatility to play inside and out, giving the Hoosiers a couple more veteran options. And Miles Marshall, who has been a big-play wideout as a reserve, might further develop into an every-down deep threat.
Penix, of course, needs to get back under center. The big lefty has the type of arm to soften defenses by driving the ball down the field, having 14 touchdowns and only 4 picks before being injured last season. Without him, Indiana’s offense turned pedestrian, to say the least, settling for underneath passes that amounted to little. Not to overstate things, but look: The whole season relies on Penix getting — and then staying — healthy.
The O-line has a wealth of experience returning, mainly because the Hoosiers almost never played with their desired starting five due to injury. And it’s a group that gave up only 14 sacks during the regular-season, the best rate in the Big Ten. Harry Crider, the All-Big Ten center, is gone from the line, but IU should be able to find a replacement, maybe super senior Dylan Powell, who was a part-time starting guard last season.
Rushing offense: Better
The Hoosiers managed to go 6-2 last season despite a rushing offense that was third-worst in the conference, averaging only 108.6 per game. It did so because Stevie Scott III was a physical between-the-tackles rusher who could pick up critical short-yardage downs and was highly effective in the redzone.
But with Scott having left a year early, offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan has made it his priority to diversify the running game, wanting to bring more speed on the field to keep defenses honest.
Maybe Tim Baldwin Jr., who had a career-high 106 yards against Maryland, could provide IU with what it desires. But maybe Stephen Carr, a 6-1, 215-pound transfer from USC, where he had 1,300 rushing and six starts in four seasons, will win the job.
Special teams: Better
Junior place-kicker Charles Campbell has an NFL caliber leg, hitting 3 kicks of more than 50 yards last season when he was 10-of-11 overall.
Two of his 50-yarders came against Ole Miss in the bowl game.
Special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin wanted to improve the Hoosiers’ return game in 2020, but it didn’t happen. IU was 10th in the league in kick return average, mostly choosing to take the ball at the 25 rather than risk a return. And it was the middle of the pack in punt returns, deciding on a conservative approach. Maybe Matthews, a solid punt return man at FSU (where he had a TD), can remedy the issue.
Indiana could be more dynamic in 2021, especially if Penix stays healthy and the running game diversifies.
But those might be big questions.
Penix has to find a way to stay on the field, even if it means Sheridan tries to keep him in the pocket more frequently. An effective running game, which might keep the pass rush at bay, could also help.