Previewing Penn State Week 5: Home Against Indiana

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Great teams find a way to win when the game is on the line. That’s exactly what Penn State did last weekend, as they were able to sneak out of Iowa City with a nail-biting, walkoff win against the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-19. It wasn’t pretty, at all, but a win is a win in the grand scheme of things, and if there’s nothing to take away from the Nittany Lions moving to 4-0 other than them moving to 4-0, I think many fans will happily take it. But as James Franklin often says, “We’ll celebrate the win tonight, and get ready for (insert next week’s opponent) tomorrow.” And that’s exactly what Franklin’s Lions will have to do, as a high powered Indiana squad is getting set to come to town this afternoon.

Indiana is in it’s first season under former defensive coordinator Tom Allen after the Hoosiers canned Head Coach Kevin Wilson at the end of last season despite the Hoosiers going 6-7 and reaching just their fourth bowl game in 23 years. Remember, this is an Indiana football team that just six years ago went 1-11 in Wilson’s first full season as head coach. Wilson lead the Hoosiers to two 4-8 records, a 5-7 season and back-to-back 6-7 years to finish his tenure with two bowl appearances.

Now it’s Tom Allen’s team, though, and they have some upside. This Hoosiers team, for what seems like the tenth year in a row, held tight with Ohio State in the opening weekend for a majority of the game before the more talented Buckeyes took over in the fourth quarter. Indiana has won two straight since the opening weekend loss to Ohio State, doubling up Virginia 34-17 and then dismantling Georgia Southern 52-17 last weekend. A matchup with Florida International was postponed in between due to hurricane implications.

The offense has always been the staple of the limited Hoosier success over the past decade, and it’s a high flying power once again.

There is no Nate Sudfeld nor is their scat-back-specialist Zander Diamont lining up at quarterback anymore. For whatever reason it may be, Diamont used to give the Nittany Lion defense fits with his speed out of the shotgun. Neither of them are on the Indiana roster anymore, and the reigns have been handed to Richard Lagow. The senior was the prime definition of gunslinger last season, as he picked up 19 touchdowns through the air, but also threw 17 interceptions. The 6’6″, 240 pound behemoth was inconsistent throughout the 2016 season, but flashed signs of brilliance at times. The same could be said for the beginning of 2017, when he went blow for blow with J.T. Barrett for a majority of the game. He attempted a career high 65 passes in that game, threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns, but also accounted for two turnovers. He threw the ball significantly less in week two, but still got the job done against Virginia. He did, however, split time with freshman Peyton Ramsey, who threw 20 passes himself and was mightily effective. Ramsey threw just four incomplete passes on the afternoon and added three total touchdowns. Similar results didn’t occur for Ramsey in week four, when he went just three of eight in reprieve of Lagow. I’d expect Lagow to get the start in this one, even if it’s simply nominal. Don’t be surprised if both guys throw double digit passes.

For the second year in a row, the Hoosiers entered a season sans their feature running back from the year prior. Going into 2016, Indiana had to find a way to replace workhorse Jordan Howard, who was taken by the Chicago Bears in the NFL Draft that year. Luckily, they were in good hands with returning “back up” Devine Redding. I put back up in quotes because he was one of those backs that could have started for a large majority of other programs in 2015. Redding carried the load in 2016, rushing 253 times for over 1110 yards. He also found the endzone seven times last year.

The Hoosiers stared at another hole at the running back position entering this season. Thus far, it’s been a freshman who’s stepped up and produced as the starting running back. Morgan Ellison has carried the ball 44 times in the first three games for the pass happy Hoosiers, picking up 257 yards and averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Those numbers are solid, but they’re not telling of the entire story. When Indiana threw the football 65 times in week one against Ohio State, of course the running game took a back seat. Ellison carried the ball just seven times in that matchup for 24 yards. It wasn’t until the Georgia Southern game three weeks later that Ellison really got going, carrying the ball 25 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns.

Ellison is a physically imposing back, standing at 6’1″, weighing in at 225 pounds. He’s a runner that can hit the hole, absorb the worst of the initial blow at the line of scrimmage and keep his feet churning for additional yards.

Ellison was lightly scouted coming out of high school He had broken each leg in his four years. He had less than a year’s worth of experience under his belt as a runner and teams appeared to be wary of his durability and skill. The narrative on Ellison is the same throughout the country, from Indiana coaches, high school coaches, and coaches that missed out on a diamond in the rough alike: he’s a great football player, an even better person, and the most determined runner that they’ve ever seen. He’s young and inexperienced, but he’s out to prove doubters wrong. That’s a dangerous running back to play against.

As good as Ellison is and will become, the scariest part of the Indiana offense is the wide receiver core. I’ve mentioned it many times this season, but it’s obviously worth repeating: the Hoosier receivers scare me. They scare me because of their size and speed combination. No other team in the conference feature a trio of 6’4″ and above wideouts like Indiana does. The receiver trio is headlined by junior Simmie Cobbs Jr. After sitting out the entire 2016 season due to injury, Cobbs has come out in 2017 proving everyone wrong. Thus far, he’s caught 18 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns in three games. Just as Ellison suffered in week one by a heavy pass/run ratio, Cobbs failed to produce much in week four against Georgia Southern due to the massive workload the running game received. He caught just two balls last week for 17 yards. Take those numbers out, and Cobbs has 16 catches for 211 yards and two scores in two games.

But it’s not just Cobb that causes concern. Opposite him sits 6’4″ receiver Donovan Hale. Hale has emerged as a relevant target for Hoosier quarterbacks in spring ball this offseason. Hale caught just 13 passes in 2016, but has half of that already this season, as he’s hauled in seven passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. The emerging tight end senior Ian Thomas has produced heavily out of the slot and off the line for Indiana this season. He caught just three passes in 2016. He managed five receptions in the first week against Ohio State. In total, Thomas has hauled in 11 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns.

I mentioned a trio of two receivers and a tight end, but there’s one receiver I haven’t mentioned because he doesn’t fit the bill of sizable Indiana receivers. That receiver is junior Luke Timian. Timian is the runt of the bunch, standing at just 6’0″ tall. I kid, of course, as just because Timian is shorter and smaller than his counterparts, doesn’t mean he’s any less productive. Timian caught just 19 passes in 2016. So far in 2017, he’s already grabbed 17 balls. And while the yardage has diminished in terms of yards per catch, Timian has come up with timely catches, particularly on third down. He’ll be just one additional benefit for the Hoosier offense when the Wild Dogs come barking.

This fantastic trio has done a phenomenal job of replacing a ton of departing receiver depth. The top two pass catchers from a year ago are gone, and 107 receptions, 1800 yards, and nine touchdowns are very hard to replace. But so far, this group have done a great job of doing just that.

This is a good Indiana offense, and it could very likely cause some defensive mishaps from Penn State with it’s size and speed combination. For the third year in a row, it appears the Hoosiers have a marquee running back at the helms. This year, though, he’ll hang around for the next season. Simmie Cobbs versus the cornerbacks is a battle I’ll be especially looking forward to. If the Nittany Lions can hold Cobbs to under 100 yards receiving, I’ll consider it a wildly successful day. While this team has come a long way since Kevin Wilson took over and went 1-11, I don’t think the Hoosiers have enough depth to keep up with Penn State for 60 minutes. I’d expect a very similar game to that of the Ohio State game a few weeks ago. I’ll take Penn State, but it’ll close for a while.

Final Prediction: Penn State 34 Indiana 17

 

Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

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