WKU set to host Indiana: What to expect from the Hoosiers

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Brittany Fisher

WKU wide receiver Craig Burt Jr. (2) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the Hilltoppers’ season-opener. The Hilltoppers defeated The Skyhawks 59-21 on Sept. 2, 2021 at Houchens-Smith Stadium.

Wyatt Sparkman, Football reporter

The WKU football program (1-1) will play its second home game of the season against the Indiana Hoosiers (1-2) Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT. Houchens-Smith Stadium is expected to be a fully-packed house and the crowd is encouraged to wear all black.

The last time these two teams met was back in 2015. The Hilltoppers led 28-17 at half before the Hoosiers scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter, leading Indiana to a 38-35 win. Indiana leads the overall series 3-0, dating back to 2008. 

“A really big game this week,” head coach Tyson Helton said in a press conference on Monday. “[We’re] really excited to have the opportunity to play a really good Indiana team. It should be a great atmosphere. I know the crowd will be there. I know everybody will be excited. Our players will be excited. Just a big week overall. Indiana has a really good football team.”  

Zappe’s Red-Hot Arm vs Indiana’s Solid Pass Prevention

WKU comes into the game with the nation’s best offense, putting up an absurd 456.5 yards per game while posting the third-most efficient passing offense in the nation. WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe has put up video game numbers this season, completing 75% of his passes for 859 yards with a 10-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

Zappe’s favorite target, junior wide receiver Jerreth Sterns, has caught 16 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns this season including a 72-yard touchdown against Army on Sept. 11. Three other Hilltopper receivers have over 100 yards of offense to their names and six different players have caught a touchdown for the red and white. 

The Hoosier have faced two top-ten teams in the nation already in Iowa and Cincinnati, losing both games by double digits. Indiana allowed an average of just 177.5 yards through the air in those two games while forcing two interceptions and a low 51% completion percentage. 

The Hoosiers have totaled five sacks on the season with graduate defensive lineman Ryder Anderson leading the way with two. Zappe’s protection has held up for most part this season but WKU allowed three sacks to Army, including 1.5 sacks to one of the nation’s leaders in sacks, junior outside linebacker Andre Carter II.

Stopping the Pass

WKU will walk into Houchens-Smith with the ninth-best pass defense in the nation, allowing just 136 yards per game. Indiana ranks 106th in the nation in passing offense with 179.7 yards per game. Redshirt junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. entered the season with a 10-2 record as starting quarterback but had already equaled his losses this season.

Penix completed 56% of his passes in 2020 for 1645 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. This year, he has completed a horrendous 48% of his passes while throwing six interceptions to only four touchdowns. 

“I know a lot of people are talking about him,” defensive coordinator Maurice Crum said. “I think he’s a phenomenal player. He’s really, really good.”

Getting to the Quarterback

The Hilltoppers’ pass rush will be looking to get something going, with only compiling two sacks so far this season. The Indiana offensive line has given up four sacks this season. 

“The first game we probably missed like four or five sacks, sadly,” redshirt junior defensive end Jaden Hunter said. “I know our guys. We’re really, really ready to go. I think we’ll get those this time. We won’t miss those opportunities. I feel like that’s the key.” 

“I feel confident in the front four,” Crum said. “I think they’re still the strength of the team. I think we’re going to continue to get better with every football game that we play. They are a talented bunch, obviously, led by DeAngelo Malone and Juwuan Jones. Those two guys are going to lead the charge… we’ll mix in pressures here and there as well, just like we always do, but I’m confident in these guys.” 

Stopping the Run

WKU has struggled stopping the run this season. The Hilltoppers have given up 5.3 yards per carry, the 16th worst in the nation, while allowing 270 yards per game, the fourth worst in the nation. 

Indiana has run for a lackluster 3.5 a carry this season, but WKU allowed FCS UT Martin to run for 5.9 yards a carry in the season opener after they ran a horrendous 2.6 yards a carry in 2020. 

“I think it starts up front,” Crum said. “We have to play well. You have to get off blocks. More than anything, when you get off blocks up front that frees up the linebackers, and if they block the linebacker, it frees up the safeties to do what they’ve done for years here in this defense. I think it’s just a matter of us maturing and keeping our foot on the gas and continuing to get better. “

Kickoff for WKU versus Indiana is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25.

Football reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @wyattsparkman3.