Indiana football: 5 keys for the Hoosiers to upset Wisconsin
Indiana can pick up a marquee victory Saturday when it travels to Madison to take on Wisconsin.
Indiana is in an odd position where it is both respected (the Hoosiers are the No. 12 team in the College Football Playoff rankings) and disrespected (for the second time in three weeks, the Hoosiers are at least a two-touchdown underdog). It was a 21.5-point spread two weeks ago at Ohio State, where IU rallied to lose 42-35. It’s a 14-point line at No. 16 Wisconsin.
The Hoosiers nearly pulled off the miracle upset in Columbus. What will they need to score a victory in Madison?
Following are the keys to beating Wisconsin:
Turn over Mertz
When Northwestern beat Wisconsin on Nov. 21, the Wildcats’ defense pestered inexperienced but talented Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz into a litany of mistakes.
The Wildcats picked off Mertz three times, turning one into 7 points.
The critical moment came late in the first half. With the game tied, Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph picked off Mertz as Wisconsin approached the red zone. Instead of the Badgers going in for a momentum-building late first-half score, the Wildcats swung around and marched 72 yards in less than 80 seconds, with a Peyton Ramsey touchdown pass giving them a 14-7 lead at the break.
The Hoosiers have a similar ability to confound quarterbacks and force them into costly mistakes. IU leads the Big Ten in a couple of critical defensive categories: interceptions (16) and sacks (20). Indiana has feasted on turning opponents over, then converting those opportunities into scores. IU has 58 points this season off its 18 takeaways, a tendency that has helped the Hoosiers score 32.8 points per game, third-best in the Big Ten, even though its offensive yardage (381.7) ranks only 9th.
Before Saturday, freshman running back Tim Baldwin Jr. had only 3 carries as the Hoosiers’ No. 3 running back.
But with Sampson James out for an undisclosed reason, the 6-foot, 217-pounder slid into the rotation behind starter Stevie Scott III. And the Hoosiers’ running game flourished like never before this season. Baldwin finished with 106 yards on 16 carries, many of them as IU pulled ahead of Maryland in the second half. The Hoosiers ended the afternoon with 234 rushing yards, 116 more than their previous best effort this season.
Scott, a big, physical between-the-tackles runner, was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after his three-TD performance vs. the Terrapins. And Baldwin provided a nice change of pace. The Hoosiers also used the Wildcat more frequently, directly snapping the ball to Scott or wide receiver David Ellis to try to jump start the running game, and it worked.
Now, Indiana has to find a way to keep up the ground game against a Jim Leonhard defense that doesn’t give up much. The Badgers has allowed only 202 rushing yards in three games, and only 3 yards per attempt. It has not given up a rushing touchdown.
Keep it simple
Quarterback Jack Tuttle will make his first career start, filling in for Michael Penix Jr., who is out for the remainder of the season after tearing an ACL.
Tuttle might fare fine. The former 4-star prospect is a big pro-style quarterback with a big arm — similar to that of Penix — who should be able to attack down the field. But the Hoosiers might want to help him out in a few ways: Establish the run and the short-passing game to keep Wisconsin’s pass rush honest.
Although the Hoosiers’ O-line has given up only 7 sacks this season, Penix’s pocket hasn’t always been clean. He used his feet deftly to get away from would-be tacklers. We’ll have to see how well Tuttle avoids the rush.
But look for offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan to try to ease Tuttle into the game plan, before letting him try to fire the ball down the field to Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor.
Stop the run
Look, anytime you play Wisconsin, the goal isn’t so much to stop the run, but to prevent yourself from being murdered by it.
And 2020 is no different. Though the face is different — Jonathan Taylor is with the Colts now — the results are the same. Wisconsin has the league’s No. 3 rush offense, averaging 219.7 yards per game. And get this: In three games, Wisconsin has more total rushing yards (659) than IU has in six (614).
The Badgers might not have a Heisman hopeful carrying the rock this season, but they’re doing well by committee. Indiana isn’t going to stop them, but if the defense can hold the Badgers below their average and avoid being gashed for the big play, then it might go a long way toward an upset.
Jump out early
Wisconsin has had a weird season.
Due to their own virus-related issues or that of their opponents, the Badgers have played only three games. After winning their opener vs. Illinois, they missed the next two weeks vs. Nebraska and Purdue, then they played Michigan and Northwestern, splitting the games in back-to-back weeks. But they were idled against last week, missing their game vs. Minnesota.
Perhaps that’ll allow the Hoosiers to get off to a quick start, then lean on Wisconsin the rest of the way, try to make them more one-dimension and see if Mertz will throw the ball away.