Missing this game on television due to personal conflicts last season was not a bad turn of events, speaking solely for myself. The Hoosiers shutout Michigan State 24-0 in an embarrassing outing by the Spartans. Besides that debacle, Indiana has emerged as quite the tough program under Tom Allen in a way that reminds me a lot of peak Mark Dantonio teams. Now the question becomes how sustainable was the 2020 season in Bloomington. For now, Michigan State should be wary of the coaching staff for Indiana in a way they haven’t had to worry about when game-planning for a certain other trophy game prior to 2008 (because that team’s coaching staff hasn’t been the advantage). Also, the roster is stacked as well.
2020 Record: 6-2
The Hoosiers had a breakout year under head coach Tom Allen (I mean no offense by this, but I still have to often double-check whether I am calling him Tim or Tom sometimes given the popularity of “Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor”). IU opened the season with a thrilling victory over Penn State, snapping a six-game losing streak to the Nittany Lions. Indiana also snapped a 24-game losing streak to Michigan, and with a win over MSU, the team’s first since 2016 and just second time in the last 12 games along with the first win on the road in nine tries, moved to 4-0 for the first time since 1987. Indiana went to Ohio State ranked inside the top-10, but lost a hard fought 42-35 victory. The Hoosiers would go on to be robbed of an opportunity to compete in the Big Ten Championship game due to a backroom rule change at the last minute by the Big Ten presidents and chancellors. The annual Old Oaken Bucket rivalry with Purdue was also canceled two-straight weeks in a row due to COVID-19 issues among both rosters. The Hoosiers earned an invite to the Outback Bowl and lost to Ole Miss 26-20.
Series History: 48-17-2
No surprise to anyone, the Spartans own a commanding 31-game lead in the all-time series over the Hoosiers. Dating back to 1922, the teams play for the Old Brass Spittoon and have since 1950. Perhaps the most unsanitary rivalry trophy in college football, the history of how it came to be is at least sort of interesting, per the State News:
In 1950 MSU football had just come off a 36-33 emotional victory over Notre Dame and were looking to avoid a letdown against Indiana the following week. Knowing this, junior class president Gene McDermott wanted to play his part in keeping the Spartans from falling trap to Indiana.
McDermott and class secretary Virginia O’Brien hit the town to find something that would rile up not only the football team but the student body heading into the Indiana matchup. Inspired by the Little Brown Jug, which University of Michigan and Minnesota play for, the two wandered into an antique shop in Lansing.
McDermott spotted the spittoon and thought it would be perfect for the rivalry. Inside the spittoon was a note that said the spittoon was in use during the 1800s at a trading post around what is now East Lansing. As the story goes, residents of both Michigan and Indiana would pass by the trading post and use the spittoon while hunting and fishing in Michigan, therefore becoming the basis for the reasoning behind the Old Brass Spittoon. The spittoon was cleaned up, and bought for $25 by McDermott.
However, for it to become a rivalry trophy, Indiana had to first accept the challenge of playing for it. McDermott sent a telegram to the Indiana Student Senate telling them about the new found trophy. Their reply?
“We the students of Indiana University hereby accept your challenge.”
The Hoosiers enter 2021 with an active one-game win streak. MSU’s largest margin of victory, a 54-0 shutout, came in 1957 to cap the series record eight-game win streak by MSU. Indiana’s largest margin of victory came in a 1991 31-0 shutout, and its longest win streak was three games from 1967-1969.
2021 Offensive Outlook
The Hoosier offense lives and breathes with Michael Penix Jr. at its helm. Penix owns a 10-2 record as the starting quarterback at Indiana, was a team captain as a sophomore, earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season, and is second in career completion percentage at Indiana headed into 2021. In just six games last season, Penix totaled 1,645 passing yards, and averaged 278.3 total yards of offense per game. He had 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions (two of those were by Michigan State’s Shakur Brown), and completed 124 of 220 total pass attempts. Needless to say, Penix is a force under center and the offense is in good hands with him there.
Gone is second-team All-Big Ten running back Stevie Scott II, but incoming for 2021 will be USC transfer Stephen Carr. The fifth-year senior is taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility. He racked up 1,319 career rushing yards, averaging 5.0 per carry. In 2020 he had just 176 yards, though, at 3.8 yards per pop. His career-high yardage and touchdowns came as a junior, with 396 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. Carr should be an asset in the backfield for Indiana.
Also returning is second-team All-Big Ten wide receiver Ty Fryfogle and third-team All-Big Ten tight end Peyton Hendershot. Fryfogle had 721 receiving yards last season, averaging 19.5 per catch to go along with seven touchdowns. Hendershot had 23 catches for 151 yards and four touchdowns.
Overall, the Hoosier offense was fourth in the league last season in scoring, averaging 28.9 points per game. It ranked just 10th in yards, though, with 359.5 yards per game. The rushing attack was all the way back in 12th place, beating out Michigan State and Purdue respectively, with 108.6 yards per game. Through the air, the Hoosiers were fifth, averaging 250.9 yards per game.
2021 Defensive Outlook
The defense for Indiana returns a daunting group for opponents. First-team All-Big Ten linebacker Micah McFadden will be back for a senior season. McFadden led the team in total tackles (59), solo tackles (45), and tied for assisted tackles (14). He also hauled in two interceptions. Also returning is All-Big Ten honorable mention linebacker Cam Jones, who finished fifth in total tackles (35) and had three passes defended.
Back in the secondary is second-team All-Big Ten honorees Jaylin WIlliams and Tiawan Mullen, along with third-team pick Devon Matthews. Matthews, a senior, was third on the team in total tackles (40), tied for third in solo tackles (26), tied for first in assisted tackled (14), and was second on the team in passes defended (five) while having one interception he returned for 24 yards. Mullen, a junior, was fourth on the team in total tackles (37), tied for third in solo (26), had 11 assisted tackled, and registered three interceptions and four passes defended. Williams, also a senior, registered 30 total tackles, 26 solo tackles, four interceptions, and one pass defended. The secondary for Indiana is stacked with talented depth and is a huge concern for any offense facing it.
On the line, however, the Hoosiers lost second-team All-Big Ten defensive lineman Jerome Johnson. Johnson was not drafted, but signed a free agent deal with the Miami Dolphins. Allen played a deep rotation at the line, so while the group had a poor run defense overall, the sack rate was decent. Defensive end James Head and defensive tackle Sio Nofoagatoto’a are the two names to remember for returners on the line. Head had two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a pass defended, and forced a fumble. Nofoagatoto’a registered a pass defended to go along with his 13 total tackles, one for loss.
Indiana’s offense got a lot of the attention last year, but it was the Hoosier’ defense that really led to the breakout year. The Hoosiers were fourth in scoring defense in the league, holding opponents to an average 20.3 points per game. The group was fifth in rush defense, holding opponents to 137.1 yards per game, but relied heavily on interceptions through the air. Indiana allowed 241 yards per game, good for 10th worst in the league, but had a league high 17 interceptions. The next closest was Northwestern with 14, for comparison.
Why No. 3?
The Hoosiers, led by Michael Penix Jr., are the team with more momentum heading into the fall than Penn State. On top of that, they are on the road in Bloomington versus home in East Lansing. If last fall didn’t get the Indiana fanbase rocking for football season, literally nothing will ever give them a big home-field advantage. This game also comes as both a second-straight road game, and just the third overall of the season to date, for the Spartans. That is a rough combination.
If the Spartans can keep this under double-digits, that will be a significant turnaround from last season’s debacle. A win would likely prove to be a huge upset. I, sadly, wouldn’t bet on the latter being the likely outcome.