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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Indiana

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Can the Hoosiers get the W on Saturday, or will Michigan prevail in a close one?

Indiana v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The No. 23 Michigan Wolverines are 1-1 heading into Week 3 against the No. 13 (2-0) Indiana Hoosiers. IU is coming off a win over Rutgers after beating Penn State in overtime Week 1, while Michigan beat Minnesota handily to start the season before getting upset by Michigan State in Week 2.

Indiana-Michigan games have been hard-fought in recent years, a trend that should continue on Saturday. To get some insight into the 2020 Indiana team, we spoke to Andy Wittry from The Crimson Quarry in this week’s edition of Behind Enemy Lines.

Indiana is coming off an 8-5 season, and has started 2-0 including a thrilling overtime win against Penn State. Is this the best team so far of the Tom Allen era?

The easy answer is “yes” and it’s also probably the right answer, but for what it’s worth, last season’s team rated slightly better in terms of both its SP+ rating (12.8 to 11.5) and ranking (No. 23 to No. 25). But it’s hard to argue with a No. 13 AP poll ranking and a win over a Penn State team that was ranked in the top 10 at kickoff. All that goes to say that IU’s efficiency metrics still have to catch up to its ranking and resume, if that makes sense.

Michigan and Indiana have played each other tough for quite some time now. What has been the difference in those losses for the Hoosiers, and what can be different this time for them to come out on the winning end?

A goal-line stand and a bobbled touchdown pass in 2015. A 30-yard run for John O’Korn on 3rd & 8, and a couple of bad punting situations for Indiana in 2016. An interception in the end zone in overtime in 2017. A couple second-half punts and turnovers on downs in 2018. All of that is intentionally oversimplified, just to hammer home that Indiana and Michigan went to overtime in two of those seasons and Indiana led at halftime in the other two. The most obvious answer has been a difference in talent, especially with Michigan enrolling back-to-back top-five classes in that stretch. I hate this answer because it’s what talking heads go to when they have nothing else, and you can’t measure it, but take your pick of confidence, belief, etc. for Indiana. They’ve already proven they can beat a ranked opponent and they backed it up in what could’ve been a classic fall-on-your-face moment at Rutgers the next week.

What’s Indiana’s biggest strength and weakness?

Advanced analytics will say IU’s special teams and defense (No. 25 and No. 26 in SP+) are relatively strong units, and new kicker Charles Campbell has had a strong and accurate foot so far. While the Hoosiers don’t have an Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan-level of future NFL draft picks on their roster, they do have some of the better individual players at their respective positions, according to Pro Football Focus, namely CB, QB, RB, WR and DL. Based on historical standards, IU does have some promising depth, too. As far as weaknesses go, IU has a first-year offensive coordinator in Nick Sheridan and it’s offensive line is far from, say, Wisconsin. So there are some play-calling and protection concerns for some fans.

What does the offense and defense look like schematically?

IU play a lot of 11 personnel, with one running back (typically Stevie Scott) and one tight end (Peyton Hendershot). While there’s a lot of individual talent for Indiana fans to be excited about, the offense is still finding its rhythm, between the O-line, a new play-caller, Michael Penix working on his touch and his receivers more reliably catching the ball. Defensively, IU plays a 4-3, but IU has been creative this season with some corner blitzes (especially from Tiawan Mullen, who had 2.5 sacks against Rutgers) and you’ll sometimes see one of IU’s front four drop back upon the snap.

Which players should Michigan be looking out for on both sides of the ball?

(QB) Michael Penix Jr. for offense and (CB) Tiawan Mullen for defense.

Give us your predictions. How will the game unfold and who wins?

Vegas sees Michigan as a 3-point favorite and SP+ (3.8 points on a neutral field) isn’t far behind, so even though IU is ranked 10 spots higher in the AP poll, the sharps and the computers still say Michigan is the better team. As much as I want to speak #TopTendiana into existence, I’ll say Michigan 31-30 in a reverse-jinx. I’ll say the game generally follows the game flow of some recent IU-Michigan games. Indiana will lead like 14-10 or 24-20 at halftime, there will be a back-breaking 3rd-down conversion for Michigan in the 3rd quarter that leads to a score, IU will struggle to run the ball on schedule, and Michael Penix Jr. will end up throwing the ball 35-40 times with overall positive, but not quite good enough, results.