For a minute there, it looked like Indiana Football had finally arrived. On the first weekend of October against Michigan State, Griffin Oakes booted a line drive through the goal posts to cap a 24-21 overtime win that allowed the Hoosiers to capture the Old Brass Spitoon for the first time in a decade. The triumph moved Indiana to 1-0 in Big Ten play and 3-1 overall.
Fast forward six weeks and Michigan State has still not won a Big Ten game, but the Hoosiers have three thanks to recent victories over Maryland and Rutgers. Even though we now view the Spartans as one of the worst teams in the conference instead of one of the best, the improvement that Indiana showed in that game has persisted. Kevin Wilson’s team showed off its much improved defense in closer-than-expected losses to Ohio State and Nebraska and is getting closer and closer to knocking off a top-10 opponent.
Penn State should be on high alert in Bloomington, then, despite last week’s win over Iowa that proved once again that the Lions are a notch above the Big Ten’s middle tier. One slip is all it takes to ruin the fantasy of a New Year’s Six bowl appearance and give critics of the program reason to doubt James Franklin’s renaissance campaign.
Will Saturday be another step forward for Penn State or the big win that Wilson and the Hoosiers have been looking for? In search for answers, we talked to Candystripes for Breakfast from Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire.
Black Shoe Diaries: When the Hoosiers defeated Michigan State on October 1, it was considered a landmark win, but Sparty is still without a conference victory. Do Indiana fans view this season differently now that the win looks pedestrian in hindsight?
Off Tackle Empire: Admittedly, I don't get to chat with a lot of other Indiana fans, but the win is still important to me at least. Winning a rivalry trophy is kind of a big deal, even if it's a trophy most people not involved in the rivalry forget exist. Second, even though it's clearly a down year for Michigan State, they're still one of the "big name" teams in this conference, and we hadn't beaten them in almost a decade on the gridiron. Would the win mean more if they had actually been good this year? Sure, but just like every win over Purdue is a good thing for us, every win over the Spartans is good too.
BSD: Even with the Michigan State triumph discounted, Indiana has been competitive with the Big Ten heavyweights, just like it was last year. This time around, instead of trying to outscore opponents who are putting up 40 or 50 points, the Hoosiers are keeping those offenses in check. What has been the big difference for the defense in 2016?
OTE: The big difference is new defensive coordinator Tom Allen. He had a proven track record of making terrible defenses better, and Indiana's defense was most certainly terrible. A lot of Indiana players bought into what Allen was preaching from day one, and while there's certainly still some room for improvement, they've come a long way in a very short time, and are actually keeping Indiana in big games they would otherwise be getting thrashed in with any prior year's defense.
BSD: Junior quarterback Richard Lagow has been impressive this season by throwing for 2,574 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes. However, he's been hurt by turnovers with 13 interceptions so far. How does Lagow go about mitigating this issue?
OTE: There are times where it seems like Lagow is trying to force passes, and a lot of those are responsible for the aforementioned interceptions. Part of that can still be attributed to this being his first year of D1 football (he redshirted at Oklahoma State before switching to JUCO), but part of it comes back to the fact that when Lagow isn't clicking, the whole offense bogs down, so he tries to make something spectacular happen, and it doesn't turn out well more often than not.
BSD: One thing Lagow does well is spread the ball around, as receivers Nick Westbrook, Ricky Jones, and Mitchell Paige all have between 40 and 43 catches. Which guy should Penn State fans be most scared of on Saturday?
OTE: Honestly, you should probably be scared of all of them for different reasons, as well as Camion Patrick. Mitchell Paige is primarily the speed receiver, so if he gets the ball in open space, it's gonna hurt. Ricky Jones has been the big-play guy most of the time, and he does run over and through quite a few tackles, so getting him to the ground ASAP will be the priority there. Westbrook is more of a touchdown vulture, so if Indiana crosses the 50 a lot, expect him to see plenty of targets from 30 yards and in. Camion Patrick is the wildcard, as he shows most of the hallmarks of a speedy, big-play receiver, but he's still trying to find the field some of the time, as injuries have slowed his progress for basically his entire time at IU. The best defense against them is not to try and shut them all down, but to simply limit the potential damage they can do.
BSD: Indiana is turning into a running back factory with both Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard playing meaningful roles in the NFL. Could Devine Redding be the next professional star? What does he have to do to succeed against a Penn State defense that just held Iowa's pair of backs to 46 yards rushing.
OTE: I don't think Devine is quite NFL-ready yet, but he's also only a junior, so needing one more year of college might not be the worst. If he does make it to the NFL, he'll probably be a change-of-pace back for a few years unless things break well for him. How he succeeds against Penn State is letting his offensive line create holes, and busting through them. Redding isn't the biggest, strongest back you'll ever see (Tyler Natee might be closer to that), but if he gets some room, he will make you pay every single time. The bigger running concern on Saturday might be the Zander Diamont/Tyler Natee package that Indiana's used to decent success the last couple weeks. If they're on the field, you have to assume either of them might end up running at you, and tackling them is two totally different tasks.
BSD: The Hoosiers are seven-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Indiana?
OTE: Vegas seems to think we'll be able to keep it fairly close. If the offense gets going early, and the defense keeps things in front of them, it could be a very long game if you're wearing blue and white. On the other hand, it could be a repeat of last year's game, score-wise anyway. I won't be surprised if the Lions pull out the win, but I'd be delighted if you don't.
Thanks again to Candystripes for Breakfast for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading Off Tackle Empire to stay up to date on the Hoosiers and the rest of the Big Ten all season long.