Photo credit - Iowa Athletics

Turnovers are turning back the IU football turnaround story

Indiana fans grew accustomed to game-changing turnovers during the program’s memorable 6-1 run through the Big Ten in 2020.  As the league leader in both interceptions and total takeaways, last year was in many ways defined by IU’s ability to take the ball from the opponent.

The Hoosiers had 17 interceptions in their seven conference contests and 20 total takeaways in those games, both Big Ten bests.

Turnovers are still a central part of the early story of the 2021 Hoosiers, but to this point, it is Indiana who is giving away the football at an unsustainable clip.  In total IU has committed seven turnovers in three games, and all seven have come in its two games against FBS competition — Iowa and Cincinnati.

The seven turnovers are the second worst total in the Big Ten and place IU at No. 117 nationally.  And unfortunately for Indiana, the remainder of the schedule looks a lot more like Iowa and Cincinnati than Idaho.  At present IU’s six Big Ten East opponents have amassed an aggregate 17-1 record, with the lone loss belonging to division powerhouse Ohio State.  Rounding out the schedule are Western Kentucky (1-1) who is coming off a bye, Minnesota (2-1) and Purdue (2-1).  Against that slate, the margin for error for this error-prone team is razor thin.

To put it simply, but perhaps not delicately, the once highly anticipated 2021 IU football season could quickly turn into a disaster if the Hoosiers cannot take care of the football. And that was a problem the staff saw potentially coming in August.

“I was a little concerned throughout training camp.  We turned the ball over too much in camp,” offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan said on Monday when asked if he saw any signs of trouble during fall camp.

Of course at the heart of the issue is redshirt junior quarterback Michael Penix, Jr.  The Tampa, Fla. native has already thrown six interceptions in three games.  Penix has thrown an interception on 6.9 percent (6-of-87) of his attempts in 2021 after giving it away on just 1.9 percent (8-of-414) of his throws over the last three seasons.

Penix’s completion percentage is also in a downward spiral, from 68.8 percent in 2019, 56.4 percent in 2020 to 48.3 percent thus far on the 2021 campaign.  It is all part of a disturbing trend that no one could have seen coming for the highly-coveted prospect out of Tampa Bay Tech High School.

“If you go back and look, he threw one interception his whole senior year of high school, so that’s not been something that he’s had an issue with,” head coach Tom Allen said on Monday.

Because Penix has historically been accurate and hasn’t thrown interceptions, there is really only one thing to conclude — he is still wrestling with the demons of three straight season ending injuries.  Whether it is a result of missing offseason development including each spring practice the last three years, or there are ongoing mental hurdles he must get past, or more likely — both, there is little question that this is not the same quarterback.

Penix was a cool customer in fall camp as a true freshman in 2018.  Many thought he earned the right to start over Peyton Ramsey that year, and he appeared to be winning the job midseason before his first torn ACL.  In 2019 Penix did beat out the highly competent Ramsey, and he looked like the complete package with a strong arm, great pocket instincts, good judgment and accuracy, and the ability to run.

At times in 2021 it looks like the only thing Penix truly trusts is that rocket left arm.  And the results have been devastating.  In 2020 Penix was one of college football’s most dangerous quarterbacks when the pocket collapsed and he was forced into quick decisions.  This is how Pro Football Focus described Penix’s pocket presence in 2020.

“He remained calm in collapsing pockets, converting pressure to sacks at an astronomically low rate of 7.4%, the best mark in the FBS.”

At times it now seems like panic has taken over where pocket presence and sound judgment once ruled.

“I thought he pressed a little bit and tried to make some plays in moments where he didn’t have to do that,” Sheridan said of Penix’s three interception day against Cincinnati.  “He needs to make better decisions in those moments.”

Allen had a similar read on Penix’s day against the Bearcats.

“What I saw, what I really felt like I saw, and we have had several discussions as a staff, was just I think pressing in those moments, just trying to do too much,” Allen said.  “End of the half there, just take a sack. … We’re inside the 10-yard line, it’s 3rd down, we’re in field goal range, got a chance to get points, just — I don’t have a problem with us trying to score, but if it’s not there, don’t put the ball in jeopardy. Just make a better decision.”

The mistakes go beyond Penix.  One, and possibly two of his interceptions against Iowa were the fault of his receivers.  And more than just interceptions have derailed this 2021 campaign.  It is easy to lose sight of the fact that Indiana was two yards from punching the ball into the end zone to take a fourth quarter lead over Cincinnati with eight minutes remaining in the game before running back Tim Baldwin fumbled.

The defense also failed to protect the edge on a long touchdown run by Iowa.  The special teams gave up a kickoff return touchdown against Cincinnati.  Veteran receivers dropped multiple catchable passes on Saturday.

It all masks the fact that Indiana has been physically on-par with two top-10 football teams.  In many ways they have been everything we expected them to be this year.  The reality is that the gap between Indiana, Iowa and Cincinnati isn’t that wide, and certainly not as stark as their 72-30 margin of loss in those two games would suggest.  In much the same way, Indiana probably wasn’t as good as their 6-1 march through the Big Ten last year.

While the Hoosiers thrived off of forcing their opponents into mistakes in 2020, it is now Indiana who is costing itself in 2021.  The season is just a quarter of the way over, but this is a delicate fan base who has supported the program in unprecedented ways to this point.  But each disappointing loss for these fans is like an in-game turnover.  Many have seen this rodeo for decades, and the pain tolerance isn’t very high.

While Indiana sold out Memorial Stadium against Cincinnati, how many of them will return on Oct. 16 for Michigan State?

It might just depend on how well Indiana cleans up the mistakes in the interim.

“You cannot turn the football over,” Allen said.  “If you do, you’d better get a whole lot more takeaways than you’re giving up, and we did not.

“We have to protect the football.”

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