Hoosiers preparing for challenge against Western Kentucky

Indiana’s first two games of the 2022 season have been very different, both in the circumstances around the game and the way the games played out. This week will continue that trend.

Indiana hosts Western Kentucky on Saturday at noon at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. IU edged out the Hilltoppers, 33-31, last year at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium in Bowling Green.

But as Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton said to local media this week, last year’s game doesn’t mean that much for this year.

“It’s a new season. Both teams have a new team, new guys playing for them,” Helton said. “They’re a good football team. They’re doing a really good job. They look pretty stout, pretty strong in all three phases. It’s going to take our best game, for sure, to go win.”

He’s right. Just look at who starred in that game for IU last year. Running back Stephen Carr led the way with 109 yards and two touchdowns. Michael Penix Jr. had a big game with 373 passing yards. Peyton Hendershot put up 100 receiving yards, and Ty Fryfogle had 98.

All are gone.

Both teams have new offensive play-callers. Western Kentucky has a new quarterback.

But WKU has maintained its identity: a high-flying offense that can put up as many points as anyone in the country, and a defense that can cause some real chaos. The Hilltoppers rank fifth in the nation in points per game (49.0), and their defense has forced 5.0 turnovers per game — the second best mark in college football.

The Hoosiers will be the toughest opponent the Hilltoppers have faced so far — WKU’s wins have come against Austin Peay and Hawaii. The national rankings only mean so much this early in the season.

But IU head coach Tom Allen knows his defense has a challenge ahead of it.

This is a very high-powered offense that we are playing against,” Allen said. “Obviously, we need a lot of guys to contribute and that starts up front. We need to do a good job of getting pressure and not let their quarterback feel comfortable, then do a good job of making sure he feels us mentally and physically. That is going to be the objective.”

WKU quarterback Austin Reed has not yet taken a sack this season. So IU’s front seven has its work cut out for Saturday.

Reed transferred to Western Kentucky this year as a graduate student after a successful stint at Division II West Florida. Allen praised Reed’s talent.

He has a really strong arm, very high IQ from a football perspective, you can tell,” Allen said. “He is a tough kid, big kid and can run it as well. He has a lot of weapons on offense, as well.”

Another notable name on WKU’s offense is running back Davion Ervin-Poindexter. He played at IU for three seasons, and saw the field in all 12 games in 2021 — he rushed for 226 yards and one touchdown last year.

Allen spoke highly of the former Hoosier, who started as a walk-on and was later placed on scholarship.

“I just really appreciate his work ethic, his perseverance,” Allen said. “He has made some really nice runs. He is one of their leading playmakers on offense. That’s exciting for him. (I’m) really proud of him. And, yeah, now we have to go find a way to stop him.”

Offensively, taking care of the ball will be a real priority for IU with Western Kentucky’s turnover proficiency.

Indiana has committed four turnovers so far this season — two against Illinois and two against Idaho. And with a good offense on the other side, giving the ball away could be particularly costly.

The Hoosiers are aware of that.

“I think that’s always a focus, ball security,” quarterback Connor Bazelak said. “I think I did a poor job of protecting the ball this past week. Even if it wasn’t a turnover, in the pocket, just not having two hands on the ball, stuff like that, stuff I’ve got to get cleaned up. Their defense does a good job of creating turnovers. That’s something we know, and we’ll prepare for that.”

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