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Five Thoughts on matchup between no. 17 Indiana vs. Rutgers

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Hoosiers beat #8 PSU in their first game, a back and forth affair that set up a big challenge for the Scarlet Knights.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Indiana
Indiana won on this play, but was up and down until this point.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

With Rutgers having a big opportunity on Saturday against no. 17 Indiana, I’ve put together five thoughts on what the Hoosiers showed on tape in their upset win over then no. 8 Penn State in the season opener for both teams.

  • Indiana’s offensive line had trouble blocking Penn State’s front four. Early in the game, Penn State kept seven guys back in coverage so Indiana gave the ball to punishing runner Stevie Scott and struggled to throw downfield, settling for dump offs. IU did go up 17-7 by halftime, however two scoring drives were on short fields after turnovers.

If Rutgers can figure out how to get pressure with their front four, they will have a good chance to upset Indiana and break a 10+ year drought since the Scarlet Knights last beat a ranked team. Indiana’s left tackle was particularly challenged, so if RU doesn’t get a pass rush with their defensive ends, expect more Mohamed Toure flying around that side, potentially with someone else dropping back into coverage in a zone blitz. RU defensive coordinator Robb Smith likes to bring different types of pressure and Indiana is more susceptible on the edge. This is the first key to the game for sure because.....

IU Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a reluctant runner, but incredibly dangerous when he leaves the pocket. Penix Jr. then started to attack the second level of the defense in the second half with outside throws and the resulting alleys were where he gauged the Nittany Lions. PSU countered by blitzing the house a few times to try and keep Penix in the pocket which resulted in some major sacks, but also lost containment other times.

  • Similar to what they see from Vedral in practice, the Knights cannot over-pursue on the ends (the old Philadelphia Jason Babin technique) because it opens up huge holes between the guard and tackle for a RB or QB to run through. Rutgers ideally needs to keep a pocket and collapse it from the inside, because I am not sure if the linebackers other than maybe Deion Jennings have enough speed to truly spy Penix OR react from their zone coverage assignment. Penix is tall, but his throwing angle is low and unorthodox, so if he throws from the pocket the defensive line can get their hands up to knock down a few balls at the line of scrimmage.

The Indiana defense was getting almost zero pressure for their front four. So, they smartly mixed their defensive play calling by blitzing occasionally, showing but dropping off other times, and occasionally just sitting back in cover 2. Credit to their coaching staff for making in game adjustments while allowing PSU to possess the ball for 20 plus minutes more than IU did without panicking.

  • Rutgers offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson is the “real deal” as at least one reader put it. Gleeson will be tasked with mixing things up himself to keep Indiana off balance and coach the quarterbacks up to understand their hot route, man to man option on a given play, and then be confident in their check down if a play gets extended. The advantage to elite spread offense is every play should have each of these three components built in. Successfully leveraging all three will be needed to keep it close with Indiana.

All this said, Penn State did score four touchdowns after halftime, though the bend but don’t break was enough to get the Hoosiers a huge win. With the lead most of the game, Indiana played things conservative in the secondary. That looked on tape like the style they are most comfortable with. I expect they will play it conservative early on, but then start bringing more pressure only if they need to, the opposite of what they did against RU last year.

  • Rutgers didn’t have many intermediate pass completions on first or second down, but those will be needed in this game. Pay particular attention to the tight ends who can help in this area. The second biggest wildcard in this game is whether Rutgers can get intermediate gains on first and second down run plays. The run game was mostly boom or bust for RU against MSU, but if Rutgers can get 7 yards against cover 2 to set up 2nd or 3rd and shorts to stay in front of the chains, that opens up the whole playbook. If those runs only go for no gain or 2 yards, Indiana can sit back and wait for Rutgers to make mistakes. Indiana’s defensive line was boom or bust against the run, if RU’s offensive line is significantly worse than Penn State’s it could be a long day for the Knights.

Indiana is well coached. They adapted to the different game situations and what Penn State was trying to do. They showed a lot of different offensive concepts and defensive concepts, having to use a variety of tactics to win the game. What else do the Hoosiers have in reserve? Will they let Penix run more earlier in the game, subjecting him to more punishment? How aggressive is each program on special teams?

  • The mark of great coaching is building off what you had success doing the previous week, but not doing the exact same thing (see Rutgers v New Hampshire 2004). Sometimes the change in tactics completely fails (see Rutgers versus UConn 2011), but generally you have to try and change things up or you are allowing the other team to prepare for exactly what they see on film. This is something Greg Schiano was successful with in the past. Rutgers didn’t have to empty the playbook to beat Michigan State, but the question is which wrinkles do they have ready in limited practice time up to this point?

My bold prediction is that we see Rutgers use a little Rich Rodriguez strategy and put four receivers outside the box, then allow Noah Vedral to make decisions to either keep it himself or hand to Isaih Pacheco with less defenders in the box to gain some yardage on the ground. The fourth receiver might be a tight end if they can go in motion and tip the defensive call, but if that is not working, four wide receiver packages could be in order. The downside is that Vedral could take a pounding, a risky move without proven depth at QB. Maybe we even see Johnny Langan in spurts outside the red zone to pound the ball a bit and also allow the staff in the booth to study how Indiana lines up against him compared to Vedral. If Rutgers falls behind big, Art Sitkowski could get a look to see if he can drive the ball down the field and open things up underneath.

Defensively, Schiano and defensive coordinator Robb Smith will have decisions to make about what they absolutely will not let Indiana do offensively and the resulting exposure it creates. Last week Michigan State had two touchdowns on plays when a Rutgers defensive back had no help and was forced to complete a do or die tackle. The play here might be to flush Penix to one side in key situations and then send Brendon White on a delayed safety blitz since he has the closing speed to tackle Penix in space, something the rest of the current roster may struggle to do. If that is not effective, maybe some other linebackers outside the two-deep with more speed could get a shot, like Zukudo Igwenagu.

Did anyone have major takeaways watching Indiana’s season opening game? Share in the comment section.