BLOOMINGTON – A year ago, Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson toyed with Indiana’s defense.
Five touchdown passes, the most by a Wolverine in a regulation game.
Nine different receivers were found.
Three plays went for 40-plus yards.
But even amid the struggles — and there were bumps in the road for IU’s young defense in 2018 and ’19 — there was always hope. There was a feeling that better days were ahead, as IU defensive coordinator Kane Wommack affirmed Wednesday on Tom Allen’s radio show.
“We knew we had talented players even a year ago, as these guys were all freshmen and sophomores,” Wommack said. “But when you start matching talent and instincts with wisdom, that to me is a deadly combination on defense.”
On Saturday, there are many things the Hoosiers want to prove. That they can not only knock off one Big Ten East power but two. That a 24-game losing streak to the Wolverines can be halted. That IU can “elevate” its play and program, as Allen’s word for the week prescribes.
This is also an opportunity for IU’s defense to reassert what progress has been demonstrated in the opening two weeks of the season. The Hoosiers are the fourth-ranked pass defense in the Big Ten, well removed from a secondary that was out of sorts versus the Wolverines in 2019. Facing a Michigan program known for dominant, athletic defenses, a maturing Hoosier unit can see how favorably it stacks up in a pivotal conference matchup.
This time, Patterson isn’t behind center, and receivers Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones are no longer running routes. But IU’s secondary returns most of its talent, all seemingly on the verge of breakout seasons, from safeties Devon Matthews and Jamar Johnson, to corners Reese Taylor, Jaylin Williams, and Tiawan Mullen.
“They have a great group of receivers, but I think we’ve got a great group of DBs,” Matthews said. “It’s a man-on-man game. They step out on the field with us, we’re going to come out victorious.”
Matthews has been one of the poignant examples of athletic ability melding with playing experience. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound safety has three pass breakups in two games. He had two all of last season.
Swarming on defense
More plays are being made throughout the IU defense. For instance, the Hoosiers had nine tackles for loss and two sacks in their first two Big Ten games in 2019. And that came after two non-conference games as a warmup. This year, IU collected 14 tackles for loss and five sacks in wins over then-No. 8 Penn State and Rutgers.
The Hoosiers’ “Swarm D” is doing a better job of limiting opponents’ explosive plays, while creating big plays of their own, producing three takeaways in each of their wins.
“It definitely brings a lot of confidence, but I think the mindset of this team is we take it one week at a time, and each week we prepare to dominate that opponent,” IU linebacker Micah McFadden said. “It doesn’t really matter what the name on the helmet is or anything like that. It’s more about what we do, how physical we are, how hard we can play our game.”
Michigan’s offense will pose challenges. The new quarterback behind center, junior Joe Milton, is a 6-5, 243-pound athlete with dual-threat ability. He let it rip last week, dropping back 51 times and completing 32 of those passes for 300 yards.
At the same time, Tom Allen pointed to Michigan’s stable of running backs as most concerning. They also have former four- and five-star recruits blocking, which gives those playmakers a chance to spring big runs. IU’s margin for error will be incredibly small.
But the hope is the talent the Hoosier coaching staff has identified over the years, overlooked or underappreciated, has finally reached a point where it can challenge the likes of Michigan. McFadden and Johnson, IU’s leading tacklers, were the No. 316 and No. 171 recruits in the state of Florida, respectively, in 2018. Taylor was a dominant player in high school, but he was a quarterback.
Demarcus Elliott, one of the stalwarts of IU’s defensive line, was a junior college product, a late addition to the 2019 recruiting class, who became an All-Big Ten honoree.
“I think we’ve brought the right players in here that fit our skill set and what we try to do schematically,” Wommack said. “Tom and I have been running this (4-2-5) system for a long time now, so we know what we need, but it takes a while to get the right guys here.”
Wommack, in his second year as IU’s defensive coordinator, has been able to build up the scheme as his group has matured.
In particular, IU has been able to get more pressure on quarterbacks, blitzing linebackers and even corners.
“Tom and I have a mentality, if we can just execute what we do, week in and week out, with consistency on the back end, (we can) change the picture and the window for the quarterback on the interior,” Wommack said. “Bring a guy here, bring a guy here, change the pattern here, and at the same time, execute on a high level on the back end, that’s a formula for success.
“We’ve adapted our system to be more flexible in who we bring, but more consistent with what we are doing in the back end and, in particular, in coverage.”
The goal is to create negative plays and limit the explosive ones, which they’ve done.
Last year, Michigan was able to flip that script on IU. But the Hoosiers intend to flip it right back in 2020.
“Being a physical football team will make the difference this game, just trying to dominate our opponent,” McFadden said. “That will make the difference in games like this.”