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Can Penn State Avenge Last Season’s Week One Loss to Indiana?

Photo courtesy of Indiana University Athletics

Michael Penix Jr. and Indiana didn’t want to play for another overtime. After scoring with just a few ticks under 30 seconds remaining in regulation, Indiana tied Penn State and forced the first overtime. The Nittany Lions scored first in OT, Sean Clifford rolling out to find Parker Washington in the back of the end zone.

Indiana answered, Penix throwing a strike to Whop Philyor to tie the game once again. Indiana head coach Tom Allen didn’t take the extra point to force double OT though. He wanted to end it right there, one way or the other. Penix took the snap from the three-yard line, was flushed out of the pocket and sprinted toward the end zone. With Lions in fast pursuit, he dove for the end zone and juuuuust barely connected the ball with the pylon.

A successful conversion for Indiana, a 39-38 overtime upset against No. 8 Penn State at home. That was Oct. 24, 2020. It began an 0-5 spiral for the Lions that wasn’t able to truly be recovered from.

This year is a little different.

Penn State is ranked fourth in the AP Poll this time around, riding a four-game winning streak to begin the season. Indiana is unranked, starting the season 2-2 after last season’s successful 6-2 season.

The Nittany Lions and Hoosiers will meet at Beaver Stadium Saturday at 7:30 p.m. for a nationally televised contest on ABC. We know the commentary crew, we know where and when, but we don’t know what the result will be just yet.

Is this the same Michael Penix from last season?

Penix was in the midst of a breakout season in 2020 before tearing his ACL (his second ACL tear and third season-ending injury while at Indiana). He threw for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions in six games before his injury. His 56% completion percentage wasn’t great, but he averaged 7.5 yards per attempt and 274.4 yards per game.

Understandably, his numbers have dipped this season, and it’s fair to wonder if the wear and tear on his body will allow him to be the quarterback he once was.

In four games this season, Penix has completed 77-of-140 pass attempts for 821 yards and just four touchdowns to six interceptions. His 55% completion percentage, 5.9 yards per attempt and 105.1 passer rating are all the lowest of his career. He’s never been a real running threat, but in his 15 attempts, he’s compiled -32 yards. He has, however, added two scores on the ground.

The trouble for Penix has come in two contests against Iowa and Cincinnati. Against the two schools, he completed 31-of-71 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns to six interceptions. Against Idaho and Western Kentucky, he completed 46-of-69 passes for 441 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He rushed for a touchdown in each game, too.

A very tough matchup against No. 5 Iowa got the season off to a bad start for Penix and then-No. 18 Indiana and the team hasn’t been able to recover.

The Indiana offense hasn’t been particularly explosive this season nor particularly strong in any area. The Hoosiers do average 29.8 points per game, but the offensive numbers don’t paint a pretty picture.

Indiana averages a relatively pedestrian 363.5 yards per game. Having run 303 plays this season, good for third-most in the conference, the Hoosiers’ 4.8 yards per play rank among the conference’s worst.

The Hoosiers average 135.5 yards on the ground per game, averaging just 3.5 yards per rush. Leading rusher senior Stephen Carr has racked up 336 yards this season on 87 attempts, good for 3.9 yards a carry. Like Penix, he’s excelled against Western Kentucky and Idaho while struggling against ranked opponents.

Indiana’s passing offense obviously isn’t a major strength, ranking in the middle of the conference with 228 yards through the air per game. However, completion percentage, interceptions and yards per attempt rank toward the bottom of the conference.

Perhaps the biggest strength on Indiana’s offense lies in senior wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. Fryfogle torched opposing defenses to the tune of 37 receptions for 721 yards and seven touchdowns last season — averaging just under 20 yards per catch.

He’s still leading the Hoosiers in receptions and yards this season with 21 catches for 224 yards, but he only has one touchdown and his yards per catch average has been cut in half.

With a pass rush that is still waiting for a breakout game, it appears Penn State has a chance to get after Penix Saturday. And for a quarterback with accuracy and decision-making issues this season, the Lions’ lockdown secondary is looking at an enticing matchup.

A defense that’s taken a step back from last season

Indiana’s offense has been up and down this season, but it’s been a very confusing season for the Indiana defense.

Iowa scored 34 points on Indiana, but the Hawkeyes ground out 303 total yards in a somewhat sloppy performance. Cincinnati fell behind 14-0 and only managed 328 yards despite a Heisman candidate in quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Bearcats capitalized on a comeback with timely plays and a 99-yard kickoff return touchdown.

Indiana handled Idaho, but Western Kentucky proved to be a fight. WKU racked up 458 yards and 31 points in a near-upset. WKU’s quick tempo, possessing the ball for just 21:26, served to rattle the Hoosiers’ defense a bit.

Despite losing a couple of All-Big 10 defenders in defensive tackle Jerome Johnson and safety Jamar Johnson, the Hoosiers returned a talented defense. Senior linebackers Cam Jones and Micah McFadden headline a talented linebacking corps and junior defensive back Taiwan Mullen is one of the best in the nation.

However, where the Hoosiers forced 20 turnovers last season, this Indiana defense has forced just five turnovers through four games — one interception and four fumble recoveries. That isn’t enough to make up for an offense that has turned the ball over seven times.

Indiana’s defense is giving up 335.3 yards per game and just over five yards per game — both bottom five in the B1G. The Hoosiers pass defense, torched by Western Kentucky last week, is particularly susceptible to good opposing quarterbacks so far this season.

Giving up 229 yards per game in the air, opposing quarterbacks have a 123.6 efficiency rating when going up against the Hoosiers defense. While holding quarterbacks to just under a 60% completion percentage, the defense has only mustered one interception this season.

Indiana’s run defense has been pretty stout, holding opposing teams to just 106.3 rush yards per game — which is good for fourth-best in the B1G. Opposing teams have rushed 114 times against Indiana and managed 425 yards at 3.7 yards per carry.

Apart from just one interception this season, the Hoosiers have only sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times in four games this season — second-worst in the B1G, ahead of only PSU.

Senior defensive back Raheem Layne II leads the Hoosiers with 22 tackles this season while Jones and McFadden have accumulated 20 and 19, respectively. McFadden is second on the team in sacks with two. Senior defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball has picked off the only ball on Indiana’s defense.

But it’s been graduate transfer defensive lineman Ryder Anderson who has been Indiana’s best defender this season. Anderson has recorded 21 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and sacks this season as a disruptive force along the line.

McFadden, Anderson and Mullen will be who Penn State needs to watch out for, but Indiana’s defense is a talented group that has underachieved so far this season. Clifford has been a good decision maker this season, and he needs to continue that against a group that has the talent to punish poor decision-making.

Otherwise, Clifford should be in for another strong game against a pass defense that has underwhelmed this season. It seems unlikely that Noah Cain and co. will experience a breakout game against a rather tough run defense.

This shouldn’t be a repeat of last season

At the end of the day, Indiana has played two Top 10 teams already this season. That’s a tough ask, and despite a blowout against Iowa, the Hoosiers have performed admirably. However, Western Kentucky battled tough against Indiana.

These clearly aren’t the same teams that met last season in Bloomington, Indiana. With a capable passer in Clifford, a strong receiving corps and a defense well-equipped to handle Penix, Penn State should avenge last season’s loss to Indiana.

Clifford’s strong start to his senior season should continue, and Penn State should roll into Iowa next week 5-0 — as long as the Lions aren’t brushing off a solid Indiana squad in favor of looking ahead to next week.

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