BLOOMINGTON — There are plenty of reasons to believe Indiana will have an easy time with Rutgers in its homecoming game Saturday at Memorial Stadium (noon, Big Ten Network).
Rutgers (1-4, 0-3 Big Ten) has been outscored 130-7 in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights fired head coach Chris Ash and offensive coordinator John McNulty following a 52-0 loss to Michigan two weeks ago. Under interim coach Nunzio Campanile, Rutgers fared no better last week, losing 48-7 at home to Maryland.
For Indiana coach Tom Allen, the challenge this week has been keeping his team both focused and sharp. The Hoosiers (3-2, 0-2), coming off a bye week, have a softer part of the conference schedule coming up after facing ranked Big Ten heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan State.
“The challenge is you’ve got to be a mature football team to understand it’s a Big Ten opportunity for both teams,” Allen said. “Been in this league long enough to know those things are irrelevant.”
With starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski and top receiver Rasheem Blackshear sitting out the rest of the season on redshirts, Rutgers is further hampered from a talent standpoint. Rutgers backup quarterback McLane Carter also announced this week he’s retiring from football due to health reasons, leaving redshirt freshman third-string quarterback Johnny Langan to make his second career start.
“They’ve got a unique situation they’re in right now, but we have no control over that,” Allen said. “And all we can control is how we prepare. And I know that we’re playing a Big Ten football team all Saturday. We’ll have to be at our very best. That’s the absolute truth.”
IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack is still concerned about the Rutgers run game, which is led by sophomore running back Isaih Pacheco (58 carries, 215 yards, four TDs).
“Their running back is a very good football player,” Wommack said. “I just think the way that he moves, the way that he attacks the line of scrimmage and playing downhill, I think the offensive line has done a really good job in the run game. You even watch Michigan and Iowa, I think they do a good job of staying on their blocks, getting movement, double teams. They’ve got a nice, solid run game.”
Indiana redshirt quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who will make his fourth career start, watched Rutgers play Maryland during the bye week to try to pick up on its tendencies. Penix is coming off an impressive performance against Michigan State and has sparked IU’s passing game when he’s been healthy, completing 71 of 102 passes for 809 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Penix said the message from coaches throughout practice has been not to underestimate Rutgers.
“You’ve just got to push hard. You’ve got to play your game every single day no matter who you are playing,” Penix said. “Come out and execute because you never know what can happen.”
With the goal of reaching a bowl game still realistic, IU senior right guard Simon Stepaniak said the Hoosiers can’t afford a letdown.
“We don’t change our mindset, no matter if the team is Top 25 in the nation or has no wins at all,” Stepaniak said. “So just attacking every week the same is the biggest thing.”
Defensively, Allen is looking for improvement in stopping the run, third-down defense and red-zone defense. Indiana ranks eighth in the Big Ten in run defense, giving up 130.2 yards per game on the ground, and is allowing teams to convert 31.9 percent on third down. In the red zone, IU has allowed opponents to score 90 percent of the time, giving up seven touchdowns and two field goals.
“Those are the areas you’re focused on for the bye week for me, and to try to attack how can we be better in those three areas?” Allen said. “Because to me it’s situational football. That’s really what it comes down to. But I just think that we’ve got to continue to simplify and execute better in those three key areas.”