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Column: Despite the loss, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about IU football

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Saturday’s matchup with Michigan State didn’t go how IU wanted it to. That doesn’t change the upward trajectory of the program.

Indiana v Michigan State
Michael Penix Jr. (9) is consoled by Matthew Bedford (76) after losing a fumble that was recovered for a touchdown on the last play of the game by the Michigan State Spartans.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Saturday was another rough one. For what seems like the millionth time Hoosier fans watched their team lead a ranked opponent in the fourth quarter before falling flat and losing by multiple scores.

As always, this one felt like it would be The One, the win that propels the Hoosiers toward some kind of national relevance. As always, it wasn’t meant to be, however badly Hoosier fans wanted it.

Despite all of the similarities to disappointments of old, the feeling in the wake of this game feels a bit different. There isn’t the pain of realizing once again that the Hoosiers aren’t quite there yet, instead, after hours of meditation (read: alcohol consumption and the subsequent Deep Sleep), I believe that there’s more reason than ever to be excited about Indiana football moving forward.

The biggest of those reasons, the great hope in Bloomington, is quarterback Michael Penix Jr. Against Michigan State the redshirt freshman looked superb. He completed 20 straight passes, the second-most in Big Ten history, racked up 286 passing yards and played a part in all four of IU’s touchdowns as he threw for three and ran for a fourth one. That’s a pretty good day at the office, but what makes it truly impressive is that he did it against the defense ranked the best in the country by SP+ coming into the game. Since then the Spartan D has been knocked down to second-best in the nation, but the point still stands — according to advanced statistics Penix stood across the line of scrimmage from a defense considered as good as the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world and he didn’t just play well, he picked it apart. If there was any doubt, I mean any at all, about Penix’s status as IU’s quarterback of the present and future, it should be gone now. He’s the best QB the Hoosiers have had since Nate Sudfeld at least and by the end of his career he could be the best since Antwaan Randle El.

Other than Penix there were other young players who performed well. True freshman Tiawan Mullen was IU’s probably best defensive back in this game. He broke up four passes, made two tackles and received plenty of praise for his performance. He might be the best cover corner that the Hoosiers have and he’s just played his second Big Ten game. Get used to seeing him, because it seems like he’s going to be a big part of IU’s future.

Sophomore safety Bryant Fitzgerald had a decent game overall as well. His afternoon will probably be remembered mostly for a dropped interception that could’ve, maybe should’ve gone for six points. Outside of that mishap he made four tackles, broke up two passes and collected a QB hurry as well.

Micah McFadden delivered a solid performance as well. The sophomore made five tackles including two for a loss from his spot at linebacker.

If the youth wasn’t enough to excite you, perhaps some numbers will. IU’s SP+ ranking actually improved following the loss. The Hoosiers went from 32nd to 29th after their performance on Saturday. IU’s offense went from being ranked 45th nationally to 29th. The defense did drop from 36th to 40th in the rankings, but that’s not enough of a drop to put a damper on everything else. There are only five teams in the Big Ten ranked higher than IU. For reference, here’s a list of teams currently ranked lower than IU in SP+:

  • Washington State - 30th
  • Miami (FL) - 31st
  • No. 24 Kansas State - 35th
  • No. 15 California - 49th
  • No. 16 Boise State - 50th

Last but not least from the analytics crowd, here’s a chart:

The Indiana Hoosiers have a 92 percent chance of playing in a bowl game. The Indiana Hoosiers have a 70 percent chance of winning seven or more games for the first time since 2007. The Indiana Hoosiers have a 37 percent chance of winning eight or more regular-season games for the first time since 1993. That result, winning eight or more games, is more likely than the Hoosiers finishing either 5-7 or 6-6. With that in mind, there’s a chance that IU breaks into the AP poll for the first time since 1994.

A lot of this is made possible by IU’s upcoming schedule. Next week the Hoosiers have a bye, but after that they’ll play rutger, Maryland, Nebraska and Northwestern. Right now SP+ would have the Hoosiers as the favorite in each and every one of those games, home or away.

The Scarlet Knights are as bad as always and just fired Chris Ash. When they come to Bloomington they’ll be coached by a New Jersey Man stereotype:

Maryland is also not good at football. Despite receiving some hype after beating a ranked Syracuse team the Turtles lost to Temple and then got their doors blown off by Penn State on Friday.

Nebraska also had a lot of hype, but they lost to Colorado earlier this season and just got beat down by Ohio State, losing 48-7 at home.

Finally, to end the stretch, if Kalen DeBoer and Penix vs. Mick McCall and Hunter Johnson (maybe?) doesn’t make you optimistic nothing will.

There’s a lot to like about the Hoosiers both for the rest of this season as well as in the future. After a few false starts to open his tenure, head coach Tom Allen seems as if he’s really building something in Bloomington and it’s being slowly validated bit by bit by both the eye test and advanced statistics. It might be hard to feel positive about this team after yet another close loss to a ranked opponent, but there’s plenty of reason to do just that. Hop on the bandwagon, all signs point to the rest of this season being fun.