BLOOMINGTON – Indiana has lived up to its potential as a dynamic defense through four games in the 2020 season.
The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in takeaways (12) and sacks (12), while ranking third in the league in run defense (111 yards per game) and fourth in total defense (320.8 yards per game).
But Saturday, No. 9 IU (4-0) will face its toughest test defensively yet against No. 3 Ohio State (3-0).
The Buckeyes haven’t slowed down from last season. With quarterback Justin Fields leading the way, Ohio State is scoring 46.3 points per game, second in the conference behind only Wisconsin (47). Fields has plenty of targets to throw to, led by sophomore wide receiver Garrett Wilson (24 catches, 344 yards, two TDs) and junior Chris Olave (18 catches, 288 yards, four TDs).
“They’ve got a great quarterback, great offense as a whole, just receivers on the outside and everything,” IU junior linebacker Micah McFadden said. “It just comes down to our defense executing fundamentally and doing what our coaches tell us to do each week and each day, performing at a high level and getting prepared that way throughout the week.”
McFadden has spearheaded IU’s defense with a team-high 30 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one interception. Experience, McFadden said, has helped him learn how to better handle the responsibility of middle linebacker in IU’s 4-2-5 defense.
“As a young kid, I was trying to pick up the defense, but also I was just out there kind of running around, trying to make plays and just trying to find the ball,” McFadden said. “But, just over these last few years, I feel like it’s been honing in on what I have to do and communicating with the guys around me and understand the defense as a whole.”
The same can be said of the rest of IU’s defense. With nine defensive starters back, all players have a better feel for their teammates and responsibilities.
“It allows us to fly around, communicate way better, trust each other,” said IU cornerback Tiawan Mullen. “Somebody is going to be in a gap or in a coverage. It’s all about the trust. We don’t have to question nobody about where they are going to be. It’s just the trust level, and it’s just flying around and everybody doing their job.”
Mullen posted his first two career interceptions against Michigan State, two of four takeaways the Hoosiers forced in their 24-0 shutout of the Spartans on Saturday. IU also was stout against the run, limiting Michigan State to just 60 yards rushing, after holding Michigan to 13 yards on the ground a week before. IU has developed depth inside with its run-stuffing defensive tackles, led by senior Jermone Johnson, junior Demarcus Elliott and sophomore Sio Nofoagatoto’a.
“When you can hold someone to 13 yards, then 60 yards (rushing) in our last two Big Ten games, there are some unsung heroes in there,” IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “We do not talk about those guys a lot because of the flash that you see from our linebackers and defensive backs. There is a physicality that is happening up front with our defensive line.”
Indiana’s defense still has the tendency to give up an occasional big play. Of the nine touchdowns IU has allowed, four have been on plays of 30 yards or more. Those breakdowns can’t happen on a regular basis Saturday against a big-play Ohio State offense.
“I don’t know if you can ever prevent all explosive plays throughout a season,” Wommack said. “What we try to focus on is that we want to limit the opponent’s big plays and none for touchdowns. We are able to do that this past week (against Michigan State) …
“The more we can eliminate those explosives and yet create enough of our own, we’re going to be in a really good position.”
IU football coach Tom Allen was named as one of 24 coaches to the Paul “Bear” Bryant Award list, given annually to the best coach in college football. Allen has led IU to its best start in Big Ten play since 1987.