Column: Another ranked opponent, another loss for Indiana?
It was halftime at Indiana's home opener and IU held a dominant 35-7 lead over Idaho. Michael Penix Jr. had thrown two touchdowns and running back Stephen Carr had a rushing touchdown. A blocked punt and a punt return led to two more touchdowns. In the second half, the Hoosiers continued scoring, overwhelming the Vandals with a final score of 56-14.
It was a bounce-back win to rinse out the sour-tasting 34-6 defeat to then-No. 18 Iowa and the result the coaching staff, players and fans were hoping to see.
But will the Hoosiers defeat No. 8 Cincinnati after crumbling against their last ranked opponent? Is the 56-14 commanding victory over Idaho, an FCS team, a smokescreen that acts as a false sense of hope?
Looking at IU's schedule, the consensus was that the Iowa game would be challenging to win on the road. But, a positive is the Hoosiers would face a weaker opponent in Idaho, exposing areas that need adjusting before squaring up against a ranked Cincinnati team. After Penix threw three interceptions against Iowa, I expected him to throw a lot of passes against Idaho to help find a rhythm in preparation for Cincinnati.
But Penix only threw 11 complete passes out of 16 total for 68 yards. Backup quarterback Jack Tuttle earned more yards than Penix on a single throw with a 76-yard touchdown pass.
Penix's longest pass against Idaho was 10 yards, and he threw only three passes for more than 20 yards against Iowa. It's clear Penix has yet to utilize a deep passing game consistently, and it's unclear if that will change anytime soon.
Completing deep passes isn't always the goal, but it can demoralize the other team and create significant offensive gains. It will be tough for Penix to feel comfortable completing deep passes when he hasn't had many in-game and, not to mention, he will be challenged by a robust Cincinnati defense.
The Bearcats' most potent threats are cornerbacks Ahmad Gardner and Coby Bryant and defensive end Myjai Sanders.
Sanders was a 2020 Bednarik Award semifinalist, an award given to the best defensive player annually. He appeared on a 2021 preseason Bednarik Award watch list with Gardner.
Gardner allowed the third-lowest passer rating in the FBS in coverage in 2020, according to ProFootballFocus.com, also having more plays on the ball than first downs allowed in his career. He will most likely be covering IU wide receiver Ty Fryfogle, Penix's primary receiver, adding to the potential struggles Penix may face.
Meanwhile, Bryant was awarded First-team All-AAC honors in 2020 with 11 passes defended, four interceptions and seven pass breakups.
These three players all pose a threat to IU's passing game. Sanders is skillful in rushing the quarterback and will look to make Penix uncomfortable. Gardner and Bryant will challenge Penix's passes, looking to capitalize if Sanders forces a mistake in the pocket.
Because Penix is currently unpredictable and facing a tough defense, IU must establish the run game better.
Carr saw more success against Idaho than against Iowa, rushing for 118 yards and scoring a touchdown last weekend compared to 57 yards without a score in the first week. While his numbers improved in week two, it is critical to point out the varying skill levels between Idaho and Iowa's defensive lines.
After two games, it isn't easy to judge the potential impact Carr can have against a more experienced Cincinnati defensive line. He was able to have a breakthrough 14-yard run against Iowa with a pair of 6-yard runs but could not make a huge impact throughout the entire game.
Will he have a significant impact against Cincinnati like he did against Idaho, helping propel the Hoosiers to victory? Or, will the Cincinnati defense put a stop to his carries?
At this stage, IU's defense is the most vital link in the Indiana football chain. It held Iowa to 17 points while forcing and recovering two fumbles. That success continued when playing Idaho, holding the Vandals to 14 points, blocking a punt returned for a touchdown and recovering one fumble to lead to another touchdown.
The question isn't if IU's defense is good enough, but instead, will it be enough?
It certainly wasn't enough while playing Iowa, where the offense failed to score a touchdown and Penix threw three interceptions, leading to 17 points on turnovers.
Home field advantage will play a significant role as it always does in college football, but regardless of the cheers from the home crowd, IU's offense, defense and special teams will need to click to beat a talented Cincinnati team.