BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – An afternoon that began with the promise of an upset ended in another sea of mistakes for Indiana on Saturday.
Four turnovers on offense, an inability to score consistently in the red zone and a critical ejection to linebacker and team captain Micah McFadden all played roles in a second-half meltdown as the Hoosiers lost 38-24 to No. 8 Cincinnati.
Before a sellout crowd of 52,656 at Memorial Stadium, Indiana jumped to a 14-0 first-half lead, scoring both of its touchdowns off turnovers, when McFadden was ejected at the 2:27 mark of the second quarter on a replay review for targeting. IU was poised to record another three-and-out, its fifth of the first half, at the time of the penalty.
“It was massive, no question,” Indiana head coach Tom Allen said. “It changed everything.”
Replays showed McFadden lowed his helmet into the helmet of Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder as he was pushed after defensive end Jaren Handy applied pressure to force an incompletion. The review was initially to determine whether Ridder recorded a forward pass or fumbled. But it turned out to be a huge boon for the Bearcats (3-0), who won for the 12th time in their last 13 games.
“What I saw -- I was asking, who is it on? Where did it come from?” Allen said. “I had no clue and I was very, very frustrated by the information I was getting. So I will have to go back and watch it, and we’ll handle it appropriately. It’s about accountability for everything in this life, and there’s no difference. So I want accountability for that.”
The penalty gave Cincinnati’s beleaguered offense life. After the call, Cincinnati continued on a nine-play, 75-yard TD drive, scoring on a 6-yard run by running back Jerome Ford to cut IU’s lead to 14-7 with 1:33 remaining.
IU quarterback Michael Penix Jr. then threw his second of three interceptions with 27 seconds remaining, which allowed the Bearcats to tack on a field goal with three seconds left in the half to cut IU’s lead to 14-10.
Indiana’s defense, which had allowed just 30 yards before McFadden’s ejection, wound up giving up 298 yards the remainder of the game.
“Forty-seven was their guy,” Ridder said, referring to McFadden’s uniform number. “It all goes around him, so the tone of their defense changed after that.”
Still, Indiana had chances to overcome the ejection and couldn’t capitalize. After the Hoosiers took a 21-17 lead in the third quarter on a D.J. Matthews 14-yard touchdown run, IU gave the lead right back on the ensuing kickoff, as Cincinnati wide receiver Trent Tucker returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown to put the Bearcats back up 23-21. IU junior kicker Charles Campbell put the Hoosiers up 24-23 with a 49-yard field goal with 41 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Cincinnati went ahead to stay 30-24 on a 19-yard TD pass from Ridder to wide receiver Alec Pierce over the outstretched IU 5-foot-10 cornerback Tiawan Mullen with 12:13 left in the fourth quarter. Then came the most critical of IU’s four turnovers. After driving down to Cincinnati’s 2-yard line, sophomore running back Tim Baldwin fumbled, on a ball poked away and recovered by Cincinnati linebacker Darrian Beavers.
IU retained possession later in the fourth quarter with 4:27 left and one timeout, but Penix, rolling to his left on third-and-16, made a throw across his body in the middle of the field Cincinnati linebacker Deshawn Pace intercepted and returned down to IU’s 6-yard line.
It was Penix’s third interception of the game and sixth of the season, already eclipsing his season total of four interceptions from last season. Penix, who finished the game 17-of-40 for 220 yards with two TDs and three interceptions, was not available postgame because he was undergoing X-Rays. Allen said he will have an update on Penix’s status Monday.
Asked about the play of Penix, Allen responded: “I saw several drops out there from some of our key guys that we’re counting on. It’s a collective group. It’s offensive line. It’s everybody. It’s better decision making by him. He’s got to protect the football.”
IU’ sellout crowd had an impact early, forcing Cincinnati into false starts in three of its first four drives. IU got on the board on a drive that began after defensive back Marcelino McCrary-Ball intercepted a tipped pass at midfield. IU went six plays in 50 yards, with Penix rolling out and hitting tight end Peyton Hendershot on a 16-yard TD pass to put the Hoosiers up 7-0.
In the second quarter, IU defensive end Ryder Anderson forced a fumble on a strip sack of Ridder, with McFadden forcing a second fumble on the same play on the scramble for the loose ball and recovering at Cincinnati’s 6-yard line. Two plays later, Penix connected with running back Stephen Carr on a 6-yard TD pass, putting IU up 14-0.
Indiana had two more trips to the red zone in the first half, but one ended with Penix being stuffed on a fourth-and-1 run play at Cincinnati’s 10-yard line, and another ended with Penix having a pass intercepted in the end zone by Cincinnati defensive back Bryan Cook.
Those lost chances for points proved costly later in the game.
“Against a good football team like this, you can’t have a ton of mistakes,” Allen said. “You can’t turn the ball over. You can’t be in the tight red zone three times and get no points. To me, that’s the game.”