At 1-2, the Indiana Hoosiers are at a crossroads. Sandwiched around their lone win of the 2021 college football season (56-14 over FCS member Idaho), the Hoosiers suffered two difficult losses at Iowa (34-6) and at home to Cincinnati (38-24).
The frustration for Tom Allen and the Hoosiers lies in knowing that Indiana seemed to self-destruct late in the first half versus Cincinnati after linebacker Micah McFadden was called for a targeting foul that led to his ejection. Said Allen, "We were dominating them till that point. ... He's our leader, he's part of our pressure, he makes a lot of tackles, and when you lose a guy like that, that's tough."
WKU sits at 1-1, with their last game a close 38-35 loss at Army. This is the first time these two teams have played each other since 2015, a 38-35 Hoosiers win, and the fourth time overall. The Hilltoppers have yet to beat Indiana.
Indiana at WKU
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Indiana -9
When Indiana Has the Ball
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is off to a challenging start to the 2021 season, with more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (four) through the first three games. He struggled against Cincinnati's stout defense, completing 17 of 40 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns, and three picks. Penix also is dealing with an injury to his passing arm, leading to speculation that backup Jack Tuttle may see meaningful snaps against WKU.
Then again, the Hoosiers may not need Penix to throw the ball that much given the Hilltoppers' struggles when it comes to stopping the run. WKU enters this game giving up 270 yards per game on the ground alone. Indiana ran for 152 yards against the Bearcats, so USC transfer Stephen Carr and Tim Baldwin Jr. may need to carry the load. The duo is responsible for 294 of the Hoosiers' 408 rushing yards thus far.
When WKU Has the Ball
Quarterback Bailey Zappe, a transfer from FCS Houston Baptist, is off to a strong start. He is second in the country with 430 passing yards per game, and he has 10 touchdown passes in just two games. He's completing 75 percent of his passes and has just two interceptions in 75 attempts.
Last week, Zappe led a furious fourth-quarter rally, leading the Hilltoppers to three touchdowns to trim a 21-point deficit before eventually falling 38-35. WKU's 35 points were the second-highest total the Black Knights have given up since the start of the 2020 season (38 points to Tulane on Nov. 14, 2020).
Jerreth Sterns (16 rec., 278 yds., 4 TDs) is the leading pass catcher, but two other Hilltoppers have already recorded double-digit receptions in just two games. As a team, WKU is averaging 16 yards per catch.
Indiana's defensive profile may not look that great on paper, but it needs to be pointed out that the Hoosiers have already played two top-10 teams in Iowa and Cincinnati. But IU will still have its hands full trying to contain the Hilltoppers' prolific passing attack and pressure will be one of the keys.
Army sacked Zappe three times last week, and the Hoosiers should definitely have the advantage up front. Indiana only has six sacks through three games, but look for that number to increase after this game. Consistent pressure on Zappe could lead to an off-target throw or two, so it will be up to Indiana defenders to take advantage and generate some turnovers. Allen built his reputation on defense, so expect him and coordinator Charlton Warren to have their unit ready.
Indiana is off to a disappointing start, and WKU has the advantage of playing at home after a week's worth of rest, but the Hoosiers have definitely faced tougher competition to this point. Even with Penix's injury issue, IU should be able to move the ball and dictate the tempo of this game. The Hilltoppers' offense will probably hit on a few big plays, but eventually, the Hoosiers will figure out their passing attack and limit the damage Zappe does through the air. Indiana wraps up its non-conference slate with a satisfying road victory.
Prediction: Indiana 35, WKU 24
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— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.