BLOOMINGTON – Forget that Penn State freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is developing into the next Big Ten football star, and that Nittany Lions receiver Allen Robinson is a one-man defense destroyer.
Don't dwell on the fact Indiana (2-2) has never beaten Penn State (3-1) or that Saturday's game could determine whether the Hoosiers earn a bowl bid. They need six wins to become bowl eligible.
Instead, enter the high-stakes world of defensive coordinator Doug Mallory. His focus comes down to one priority above all others:
“We have to do a better job of stopping the run. That's the biggest improvement we've got to make.”
Mallory's low-stated words have high-impact importance. IU allows a Big Ten-worst 247.8 rushing yards. It spent much of the extra time available because of a bye week to address it, just as it did last spring and August camp.
“Sometimes young kids see too much,” Mallory said. “You have to know your visual key and react to it. If you're seeing too much, you over-play your responsibility. Once they get comfortable with that, the game slows down and allows them to play faster.”
It sounds simple, but if you saw the Hoosiers get run over by Navy (444 rushing yards) and Missouri (280 yards), if you recognize that they have allowed at least 231 rushing yards a game for the last three years of dreadful defense, you know nothing is simple.
The good news: Mallory likes what he's seen in practice.
“The effort and attitude have been great. We're showing signs of making progress. That's what it's all about. Get back to the basics and play within the framework of the (defensive) call,” he said.
Coach Kevin Wilson wants a structurally sound defense, which means players are where they're supposed to be when they're supposed to be there. Sometimes, while trying to disguise a defense, that gets lost. Wilson calls it “over-scheming.” Some players are so eager to make a play that they peek in the backfield or look outside of their responsibilities. Can't happen. Wilson calls it “eye discipline.”
Offenses are quick to exploit it.
“We've had a significant amount of miscommunication, misalignment,” Wilson said. “We've got guys not hitting the right gaps.
“Our thing is to make sure we're getting lined up a lot cleaner, put our eyes where they're supposed to be and giving our guys a chance to know what they're doing so we can be a little more aggressive in what we're doing.”
Penn State will try to impose its offensive will with balance. Hackenberg ranks third in the Big Ten in passing (256.8 yards) with five touchdown passes. Robinson is second in the conference in catches (26), yards (448) and yards per catch (17.2). He's caught three TD passes. He burned IU last year with 10 catches for 197 yards and three TDs. Running impact comes from Zach Zwinak (297 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and Bill Belton (253 yards, two TDs), although the Nittany Lions rank just eighth in the Big Ten in rushing (197.0 yards a game).
“They've played the games on their terms,” Wilson said. “They do a good job of getting themselves in rhythm. That's why they're very, very successful. And then they throw it to some quality players.”
Penn State has the Big Ten's second-stingiest defense, allowing 14.5 points. The Hoosiers, by the way, will face the conference's No. 1 defense next week when they play at Michigan State, which allows 13.2 points.
But we digress.
IU has the Big Ten's second-best offense, scoring at a 44.5-point clip. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld might be able to exploit a Nittany Lions defense weakened by the loss of safety Ryan Keiser (hand injury), although veteran linebacker Mike Hull is set to return from a knee injury.
Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles burned the Nittany Lions for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 upset three weeks ago. The Hoosiers' passing attack (No. 8 nationally) is rated higher than Central Florida's (No. 22).
But Wilson has never been a one-dimensional coach, which is why he wants more than the 98 rushing yards the Hoosiers generated in their last game, a 45-28 loss to Missouri.
“We've got to do everything we can to play much better run defense to give us a chance,” he said. “And we've got to find a way to run.
“Those are the challenges. That's why we worked all spring and in the preseason to evolve there. We're still evolving there. We're going to have to have success.
“We've worked at it, identified it. We'll see what improvement we've made in the last 14 days.”
IU gets 12th commitment
IU tapped into its Ohio connections to get a commitment from linebacker Dameon Willis, the state's No. 52 player. The 6-foot, 209-pound Cleveland St. Ignatius standout chose the Hoosiers over Wake Forest and Toledo. He had 10 scholarship offers overall, including Cincinnati and Louisville.
Also, Florida three-star tight end David Riley is set to make an official visit this weekend. Besides IU Riley's offers include Florida State, Louisville, Oregon, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Miami of Florida.