Zach Osterman is the Indiana beat reporter for The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com and is in his eighth year at the newspaper. He has covered Indiana for over 15 years in various stops as a student and professional journalist, and you can follow his work here.
He shares his thoughts about today’s game between No. 18 University of Wisconsin and No. 10 Indiana.
Which offensive player must have success for the Hoosiers to beat the Badgers?
This is a tougher question to answer without Michael Penix, who’s out for the season now with a torn ACL. But, given Wisconsin’s strength against the run, I might have to go with Jack Tuttle. He’s got a lot of good pieces around him and familiarity with this offense. But it’s hard to know where his strengths and preferences lie within that offense, who might get more targets than others, etc. What I am confident saying is IU doesn’t win Saturday if he doesn’t make some key plays.
Which defensive player must have success for the Hoosiers to beat the Badgers?
This is a much tougher question to answer. Indiana’s defense is good — perhaps very good — in part because it’s the sum of its parts. Every level has dependable guys and depth. If pressed, I’d probably single out Micah McFadden. He’s crucial against the run as a middle linebacker, IU isn’t afraid to bring him on the blitz and, recently, we’ve seen him more in pass coverage. He has a genuine case as the best middle backer in the league right now, and at the risk of leaving out some deserving teammates, I’ll peg him.
Which Indiana player has surprised you the most this season?
There are a few, in different ways. Players like DT Jerome Johnson and CB Jaylin Williams have gone up a level I wasn’t completely sure they had. I’d say the same about WR Ty Fryfogle, who was very good last season but obviously not at the level he’s been playing at for the last few weeks. The last I’d throw out is FS Jamar Johnson, who sort of embodies Indiana’s defensive improvement, in that he was quietly very good last season and hasn’t been so quiet about it in 2020.
What’s the feeling of the job Tom Allen is doing at Indiana?
Obviously there’s a lot of respect and excitement, though I think it’s about more than just this season. There’s a feeling he’s building something durable at Indiana, a place that hasn’t had durability since Bill Mallory. Now, I think everyone understands continued success will bring continued attention, and perhaps one day someone will try hard to lure him away. But it does feel like fans believe there’s a culture being established that can become repetitive and engrained, in a way, whatever the future holds.
Prediction for the game and why?
I’ll go for a narrow Wisconsin win, something like 28-24 or 31-28. And I’ll have very little confidence in that prediction.
Who has the edge when Indiana visits Wisconsin?
Who has the edge when No. 10 Indiana visits No. 18 Wisconsin?
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
UW had one of its worst offensive performances of the Paul Chryst era two weeks ago at Northwestern. Seven points won’t get it done against many teams and the UW offense needs to get back on track after turning the ball over five times.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz (above) looked like a freshman against the Wildcats, making a number of mistakes that gave the ball away and ended drives on third down. Indiana’s defense has allowed some big plays through the air, but their secondary has come up with 16 interceptions in six games, leading the country in that category.
A concern for the Badgers is the health of the receiving corps. UW was without senior receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor at Northwestern, which hampered the offense and exposed a lack of depth at the position. Pryor practiced last week, but Davis’s status is questionable. Junior tight end Jake Ferguson leads UW in catches (18), yards (181) and touchdowns (four), but he took a number of hard hits against Northwestern and went to the sideline multiple times in obvious pain.
Freshman Chimere Dike hauled in a 49-yard TD for the team’s only score against the Wildcats and he could be a bigger factor in the passing game if injuries slow Davis, Ferguson or Pryor. When last week’s scheduled game against Minnesota was canceled, the Badgers were allowed to practice and convert the time to a bye week.
Jalen Berger has emerged as the best option in the Badgers’ stable of tailbacks. He had 93 yards on 15 carries against the Wildcats, leading the team in rushing for the second consecutive game. Indiana’s run defense has been up and down. It allows 135 yards per game on the ground, with highs of 307 and 250 allowed to Ohio State and Penn State, respectively. But the Hoosiers held Michigan (13), Michigan State (60) and Maryland (59) well below their averages.
Expect Berger, redshirt sophomore Nakia Watson, senior Garrett Groshek and an experienced offensive line to get things going for the Badgers.
EDGE | UW
WHEN THE HOOSIERS HAVE THE BALL
Indiana has one of the best offenses in college football with redshirt sophomore Michael Penix Jr. under center. However, after suffering a torn ACL in the third quarter of last week’s game against Maryland, Penix Jr. is out for the season.
Penix Jr. and the passing game have been Indiana’s bread-and-butter, so redshirt sophomore Jack Tuttle will need to run the show and continue fueling a high-powered offense. Tuttle went 5-for-5 for 31 yards against the Terrapins.
The Hoosiers feature two of the best receivers in the conference and a top-tier tight end as well. Receivers Ty Fryfogle (above) leads the conference in receiving yards (652) and is tied for the conference lead with seven receiving touchdowns, while Whop Philyor (32 catches, 367 yards, two TDs) and tight end Peyton Hendershot (20-143-3) have been productive as well.
UW’s secondary suffered a setback last week when starting cornerback Rachad Wildgoose opted out of the rest of the season and declared for the NFL draft. Wildgoose was injured against Northwestern and may not have been healthy enough to play anyway. Indiana’s offense will test the secondary with Tuttle — a former four-star recruit — under center.
Despite a nearly-even split between run and pass plays, the Hoosiers average just 3 yards per carry. The Badgers have the sixth-best run defense in the FBS, allowing just 89 yards per game. Indiana running back Stevie Scott III (6-foot-2, 231 pounds) is a load to tackle and earned conference player of the week honors last week after scoring three touchdowns.
The Hoosiers used the wildcat formation often after Penix went down, so UW’s defense will need to be prepared for a variety of backfield looks.
EDGE | PUSH
Punter Andy Vujnovich has been a big improvement at the position for the Badgers. His average kick of 42.9 yards ranks third in the conference and he’s had seven punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He did well pinning the Wildcats in tough field position, but the offense never capitalized on those flips of the field.
Charles Campbell has gone 8-for-9 on field goals for Indiana, including a long of 52 yards, and Haydon Whitehead is just behind Vujnovich with a 42.8-yard average on punts.
Only half of Indiana’s kickoffs this season have been touchbacks, so there should be chances for return man Stephan Bracey to make a play.
EDGE | PUSH
The Penix Jr. injury removes one of the most exciting players in the conference in this game, but both teams have plenty on the line.
UW still has an outside shot of winning the Big Ten West, even if it won’t be eligible for the conference title game because it didn’t play enough games. The Hoosiers may represent the East in the conference championship game if Ohio State can’t play this weekend after a COVID-19 outbreak.
This is also a chance for both teams to get a win over an opponent ranked in the College Football Playoff poll, which will help their resumes for potentially earning a bid to a New Year’s Six bowl game.
Without Penix, the Hoosiers have to avoid the slow starts they’ve had this year against a UW team that, especially defensively, jumps on opponents early.
EDGE | PUSH
Paul Chryst and Badgers need to regroup after a tough showing. Chryst’s decisions to punt inside the Northwestern 40 on a fourth-and-3 in the first half and to forgo a field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter down seven didn’t work out.
The injury situation may alter what offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is able to do this week, but UW should have the advantage in the run game to rely on.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has again built a top-tier defense in college football, and that group is one of the best against the run in the nation.
Tom Allen (above) has gotten the Indiana program to heights it hasn’t reached since the mid-1960s.
Indiana offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan along with assistants Mike Hart and Grant Heard have the Hoosiers’ offensive humming, while defensive coordinator Kane Wommack has gotten the defense focused on creating turnovers.
EDGE | UW
STATE JOURNAL PICK
A week of practices without a game should help the Badgers get healthy and reset for the stretch of the season, while Indiana is dealing with an injury to its star quarterback. If Mertz and the offense can avoid turnovers, the running game and defense should be able to control the pace of the game and keep UW ahead. Tuttle is talented, but it’s hard to expect him to run the offense as well as Penix Jr. did.
BADGERS 28, INDIANA 20
THE NUMBER (UW)
6: Yards per carry for freshman Jalen Berger (above) this year, 2 more than any other UW running back
THE NUMBER (INDIANA)
73.2: Percentage of the Indiana offense that comes through the passing game, the second highest in the conference behind Purdue
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Penalties: After limiting flags in the early weeks, UW had four offensive penalties for 25 yards against Northwestern
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Third-down conversions: Indiana converts 37.5 percent of its third-down chances, 11th in the conference, while UW leads the conference at 19.4 percent of third-down conversions allowed