It's time to call Indiana what it is: B1G contender
I’ve been far more reluctant to jump aboard the Indiana bandwagon than some in the national media, who have written glowingly about Michael Penix Jr. and an upstart Hoosiers team that keeps punching above their weight.
I was wary of prematurely anointing Indiana in the same way I haven’t been with Michigan. Part of that was due to the obvious historical gap between the programs. And some of that was my eyes; Michigan looked great against Minnesota in the opener, and Indiana somehow pulled it out against Penn State.
But after a thoroughly dominating performance against No. 23 Michigan on Saturday, it’s past time to call No. 13 Indiana what it is: B1G contender. The Hoosiers’ 38-21 win—their first over Michigan since 1987—may vault them into the top 10 for the first time since 1969.
And it’s also past time to call Tom Allen what he is: An elite head coach. You can probably say the exact opposite about Jim Harbaugh and the state of the Michigan program—the former of which is clearly not in the upper echelon of college football head coaches and the latter of which clearly lacks discernible direction.
Look no further than the way each program handles success. After Indiana’s statement win against Penn State, the sort of win it has been waiting for forever, it took care of business at Rutgers and dominated Michigan. After what everyone thought was a statement win at Minnesota, Michigan has led for exactly 0 seconds the last 2 weeks against Michigan State and Indiana. And that’s been a hallmark of Michigan under Harbaugh—every time the fan base starts to believe, the Wolverines promptly remind everyone why they haven’t won the Big Ten since 2004.
Indiana, meanwhile has had every reason to start reading its own press clippings and bask in the glow of its highest ranking since 1987, yet it confidently keeps pushing forward. The Hoosiers on Saturday played free and relaxed. Michigan was tense, as if waiting for something to go wrong. The Wolverines were jumpy (on the defensive line), grabby (in the secondary) and erratic (at quarterback), finishing with 8 penalties for 89 yards and just 13 rushing yards.
Indiana, when the going gets tough, digs in and makes adjustments. Michigan, when the going gets tough, seems to fall further and further into a hole.
Indiana is 3-0 despite facing a massive talent gap in 2 of the games. Penn State has 48 blue-chip recruits and Michigan has 42. Indiana has just 5. The Hoosiers’ great advantage, though, is with their head coach. That’s been the most obvious thing that stands out most to me after 3 weeks is that Allen’s squad has been the better-coached team in all 3—and it hasn’t been particularly close. That’s despite facing a massive talent gap.
Allen had the Hoosiers precisely aware of all the late-game situations against Penn State, in stark contrast to the way James Franklin handled the pivotal final moments of regulation and overtime.
And on Saturday, Michigan showed a lack of discipline that is inexcusable in Harbaugh’s 6th season. On 5 occasions in the first half, the Wolverines jumped offsides and gave Indiana a free play. And Penix, comprehending the situation in a way that even most NFL QBs do not, threw deep every time. On 2 of those plays, Penix threw touchdown passes. It’s been a theme over and over the last 3 weeks: Allen’s players understand the situation and make the smart play. And that’s in a pandemic-marred offseason with every excuse to make mistakes. Indiana thrives with this adversity because Allen is so prepared and has gotten every one of his guys to buy in. Watch one clip of his post game speeches and you’ll understand why.
Allen had no college head coaching experience, but he was tabbed to take over at Indiana when Kevin Wilson was fired. After going 13-18 to start his tenure, he is 8-2 since. He has been so good that other programs are coming to hire his staff away from him. In the offseason, he lost offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer, who is now the head coach at Fresno State; he lost defensive line coach Mark Hagen to Texas; and most of his strength staff was poached by none other than Nick Saban. And with how good the Hoosiers have been so far, he may face a similar problem this offseason.
Allen has made it work with 32-year-old offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, and after a few less-than-stellar offensive showings to open the season, Indiana looked terrific against Michigan. I know, even Michigan State looked great against Indiana. But the Hoosiers racked up 460 yards—342 through the air—and looked like the explosive offense they were in 2019. Penix threw 50 times, linking up with Ty Fryfogle (7 catches, 142 yards) and Whop Philyor (11 catches, 79 yards) for big plays or just to move the sticks. And in close, Stevie Scott helped finish off drives with TDs.
Indiana allowed nearly 400 yards per game against Big Ten teams last season, and their defense’s early-season surge has been enough to offset the offense’s slow start.
Outside of Ohio State, is there a better team in the Big Ten? At the bare minimum, Allen has thrust Indiana into that conversation. After Saturday’s beating of Michigan, there is now no doubt—Indiana is a Big Ten contender.