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Three Things: Indiana 27, Maryland 11

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Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic

Maryland v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

We were aggressively incorrect on Friday when we predicted an entertaining game between Indiana and Maryland. That game suuuuuuuucked, folks.

“But there’s a tasty quarterback showdown between Michael Penix Jr. and Taulia Tagovailoa!” we said. What could go wrong?

Well, shit. Did we jinx it? We may have jinxed it. No. 12 IU won Saturday’s game 27-11, but also suffered a loss. A big loss.

Let’s get right to it. Here are Three Things.

Michael Penix Jr. left with an injury and did not return. But try not to panic.

It was a bad day all around for Penix, who never really looked like himself on Saturday. Everything was a little off, from the way he delivered his throws to the way those passes were placed. He completed only two of his first 15 attempts of the afternoon, and didn’t get much help from the folks around him. Then the injury happened, and an ugly day became something much more concerning.

We don’t know what, exactly, is ailing Penix, nor do we know the severity. Specifics probably won’t be revealed until Monday, at the earliest, after Tom Allen told reporters after the game only that he has a “lower-leg” injury. Penix has had horrible injury luck during his first three years in college, so you really have to feel for him and hope it’s nothing too serious. Fingers crossed that he’s right back out there as soon as possible.

You’d also be forgiven for Going Through Some Things the moment the camera panned to Penix sprawled on the sideline, wincing in agony. After years of futility, it is understood that fatalism is the default response. It’s baked into the soul of Indiana football fandom.

But if you can muster some hope, take note of the way IU responded to the loss of its quarterback. The Hoosiers kept grinding this one down, carrying on with their strong second-half performance. The defense — or, at least, the first- and second-team defense — didn’t let up, the offense overcame a sluggish start, and Penix’s replacement, Jack Tuttle, inspired confidence should he be needed moving forward.

We wrote about this during the preseason, so we’re sort of repeating ourselves here, but when was the last time Indiana had this much talent in its quarterback room, in terms of recruiting rankings? Maybe never?

Look, Penix is the guy. He’s the quarterback you want to have on the field in games that matter. But having a player with Tuttle’s prep-level bonafides provides a measure of comfort in Indiana’s Plan B. Instead of having Penix, a guy Rivals considered the No. 14 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 recruiting class, IU may be turning to the guy ranked fifth in that same class. Not bad!

In limited action on Saturday, Tuttle threw a good ball while filling the needed role of game manager during the final 19 minutes. He completed all five of his passes, and converted on a two-point play at the end of the third quarter.

And here’s the thing. Indiana’s program has weathered all sorts of iffy quarterback situations in recent years. Should IU need to ride with Tuttle, it doesn’t feel like the drop off will be as severe as it could be. Perhaps most importantly, IU’s offense wouldn’t have to change much, if at all. Tuttle’s player profile seems to fit with what Indiana wants and needs to do offensively, and his insertion with the first-team offense shouldn’t require much surgery to make it work. Obviously, his lack of game experience is a concern, just as it would be for any player on any team anywhere when dipping deeper on the depth chart.

But on Saturday, IU’s backup looked competent. That’s more than a lot of teams can say.

IU is addicted to run-game gimmicks against Maryland

You remember Bacon ‘n Legs, right? Surely you recall the Tyler Natee-Zander Diamont wrinkle that Indiana introduced against Maryland in 2016. It was a late addition to the playbook that season, a spin on a scout team look that Natee gave the defense to prepare for Terps read-option quarterback Perry Hills. The Wildcat looked so intriguing in practice that former coach Kevin Wilson implemented it in the actual gameday script, watching as it worked to great success. Both Natee and Diamont ran for more than 100 yards apiece, while the Hoosiers gashed Maryland to the tune of 414 rushing yards on the day. It only worked for one week, but it worked really, really well, and helped Indiana establish some needed traction on the ground.

With the Terps back in Bloomington this week, the Hoosiers returned to the Wildcat to give their sputtering run game some juice. And It worked! Indiana scored all three of its touchdowns on direct snaps.

It was novel and cool to see IU turn to the Wildcat five times on its first touchdown drive of the game, including on the final play — a three-yard run by Stevie Scott. Here’s what it yielded on that initial scoring series:

David Ellis for 9 yards

David Ellis for 7 yards

Stevie Scott for 1 yard

Stevie Scott for 2 yards

Stevie Scott for 3 yards (TOUCHDOWN)

Credit to offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan for trying something — anything — to get this running game going. Credit to David Ellis for playing the part of Zander Diamont, and credit to Stevie Scott for his admirable rendition of Big Bacon. Ah, memories.

In all seriousness, it’s great to see Sheridan and IU show a willingness to make changes when they’re needed. Plus, the Wildcat is fun. But it’s not a long-term solution. Just look at Bacon ‘n Legs. Indiana tried that package a few more times during the 2016 season, but it didn’t really produce anything of value. Forty-seven percent of Natee’s production that season came in that one Maryland game, for example.

Overall on Saturday, Indiana rushed for a season-high 234 yards against a pretty poor Maryland front. The Hoosiers also received some help from an unexpected source, with freshman Tim Baldwin logging 106 yards on 16 carries. The former Michigan commit demonstrated some really intriguing burst, proving to be another complement to the skill sets that IU has slotted around him on the two-deep.

However, despite the numbers, it doesn’t feel like we can claim IU’s running game is fixed. But it was encouraging, at least, to see the Hoosiers try something — and someone! — new to find traction.

So … about the Big Ten Championship game

Lucas Oil Stadium is typically a well-fortified facility. But within the past decade, we’ve noticed that the back door has been left open more than once. Indiana is still trying to sneak in.

In 2012, a 4-5 IU team had a chance to take advantage of postseason bans for Ohio State and Penn State and slink its way into the Big Ten title game. A mid-November win over Wisconsin would have locked the Hoosiers and Badgers into a tie atop the Leaders Division (lol), with IU holding the tiebreaker. Unfortunately for Indiana, Wisconsin — as it so often does in this series — rolled to a 62-14 victory, dashing the Hoosiers’ fantastical postseason hopes and closing that door in Indianapolis.

This year, the door is open once again.

Ohio State’s decision to cancel Saturday’s game at Illinois due to rising COVID-19 cases in its program changes the landscape of the Big Ten East race. If the Buckeyes miss one of their two remaining games, it would almost certainly prevent them from being eligible for the Big Ten Championship.

That means Indiana, which is sitting comfortably in second place in the East, would be positioned to take Ohio State’s place in Indianapolis should the Buckeyes miss one more game down the stretch. It’s a huge story, and will be one for us to monitor over the coming days.

Up next: Wisconsin

*shivers*

Yeah, so, this series has been hilariously one-sided over the past 15 years. We know that. Wisconsin has taken each of the last 10 meetings, winning by an average margin of ... wait for it ... 36 points. Woof. Then again, this is a different IU group, and I think we all understand at this point that the past isn’t always predictive.