Hammer & Rails and Crimson Quarry have had some nasty exchanges in the past, but new manager Mike Miller has been great to work with from across the aisle of I-70. Today he stops by to talk about Indiana football and the long awaited resurgence.
T-Mill: Indiana has improved to “beat the teams they should beat”, which is a gigantic step for the program. How much of the last two years has been opponents like Penn State and MIchigan being down and how much is Indiana is just now pretty damn good?
Mike: This is a good, fair question, particularly because it still feels difficult to get a sense of how and where all of these teams sit after whatever the hell that 2020 season was. Is Indiana a good team? Yes, I think so. How good? I’m still not entirely sure. But I do think there’s evidence that makes me lean toward agreeing more with the latter half of your question. The majority of IU’s wins last year were pretty darn convincing. That was a strong, cohesive team that featured some legitimately great college football players. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen and linebacker Micah McFadden are two of the best defensive players in the country. Michael Penix has shown enough flashes to make the case that he’s the best quarterback in the Big Ten entering the season. Ty Fryfogle was outstanding in some tough one-on-one matchups last season, and it feels like that’s just sort of who he is now — a sure-handed, physical receiver you can trust. There’s a lot of skill and experience at key spots on both sides of the ball, and I think when you have a foundation like IU does, you’re in pretty good shape. As for the level of play from recent opponents, I get it. The peripherals indicate that enthusiasm should probably be tempered. But no one is going to apologize for the schedule. In a lot of ways, I think it was just so important for IU’s program to finally beat Penn State and Michigan — regardless of them being down — just to feed some sort of belief that they’ve done it once and they can do it again. We’ll see.
T-Mill: Indiana’s first five games are about as tricky as you can ask for to start, but “The Reach” last year was a definite springboard. How do you see the team holding up there?
You’re definitely right about The Reach. Again, when I talk about belief, that moment really seemed to propel the team forward and confirm the inner confidence that seemed to be bubbling within the group over the prior year. I think a similar situation could play out if IU can get out of Kinnick with a win on opening weekend. It’s a difficult place to play (also, as an aside, it’s my favorite Big Ten road stadium) and a win there would instantly provide a jolt that could propel the team into the teeth of the schedule. Also, after the way IU felt snubbed by Gary Barta and the CFP committee last fall — regardless of whether you agree or not — I’d bet there’s some extra motivation in the Indiana locker room to go to Iowa and shove it to them. After the Idaho game in Week 2, things get super interesting with a home game against Cincinnati. It almost feels like the two programs are kindred spirits entering this season — highly-touted quarterbacks, high expectations, a national spotlight, etc. It appears that the predictive models view it as a toss up, which feels right. After that, a weird, under-the-lights trip to Western Kentucky. It’s a game where IU should/will be favored, but the tortured history of Indiana football makes me wonder just how squirrelly that trip might get. From there, it’s on to Penn State, a place where IU has yet to win. That said, Indiana darn near pulled it off in Happy Valley during the middle of the 2019 schedule. But you’re right. It’s tricky and hard to predict how that opening stretch will play out. If I have to pick wins right now, I’d probably say they start 3-2 with wins over Idaho, Cincinnati and Western Kentucky.
T-Mill: Can Michael Penix Jr. make it through a full season and will IU be just fine if Jack Tuttle takes over?
Mike: The first part of that question is THE most pressing question facing the team this season. Penix has so many of the things you want in a college quarterback, and yet he’s dealt with season-ending injuries in each of his first three years in Bloomington. Even when he was on the field last year, he was still a bit uneven. The highs were so high that they almost make you forget some of the moments where he didn’t look all that great. I will say, however, that he didn’t have it easy given the state of IU’s offensive line last year. It wasn’t very good, especially in passing situations. To his credit, there were plenty of times when Penix stepped up and made some excellent reads in the face of pressure, a quality that allowed IU’s offense to produce despite the holes up front. I also think that really fed belief among the offense that Penix was The Guy. It’s a situation where the offense seems to really believe in him and latches on to his energy, confidence and ability. With Tuttle, there’s a bit of a dropoff, though having him as a backup is still a pretty sweet situation for a program that hasn’t always been so lucky. Minus one big, costly drop at Wisconsin, his stats in his first career start would look even better — and really, he still looked pretty good, all things considered, in that game. But yeah, Penix has the potential to be great, Tuttle has the potential to be very good, and while leaning on the latter wouldn’t torpedo the season, everyone just wants to avoid that scenario if at all possible.
T-Mill: I have been really impressed with the Indiana defense and its havoc with interceptions and sacks, but the overall stats are kind of in the middle. Is it a high risk/high reward defense?
Mike: Sort of. IU fed off of takeaways so much last season, and that’s kind of a volatile way to live. I’ll be curious to see how they follow up this fall. One of the key areas to watch will be the defensive line. There will be some new faces working into the rotation, including three transfers: Ryder Anderson (Ole Miss), Jaren Handy (Auburn) and Weston Kramer (Northern Illinois). IU is also continuing to emphasize its hybrid edge/outside linebacker position and has a bunch of intriguing guys it’ll be working into the mix there. Even with a new defensive coordinator, it’s still Tom Allen’s defense. And the thing we’ve learned about an Allen defense over the past few years is that it takes chances by disguising coverages, getting creative with blitzes and working the angles to create confusion. Even without the havoc plays, there’s a solid base to work with.
T-Mill: Purdue has seemingly had all the bad luck the last two years while Indiana has had all the good luck. Can we get things more level so Tom Allen vs. Jeff Brohm becomes fun?
T-Mill: BONUS BASKETBALL QUESTION!! What are your thoughts on the Mike Woodson hire since today marks 2,000 days since the last IU win in the series?
Mike: When the notification showed up on my phone last March, I scoffed. It felt dumb. Uninspired, even. But I’ve come around to it. At the very least, it should be interesting, which is not something anyone has been able to say about IU basketball since ... hmmm ... when was the last time IU basketball was interesting? 2016? The day Romeo Langford committed? Either way, it’s been a while. So far, Woodson has won the offseason. He brought in some intriguing transfers (Pitt’s Xavier Johnson and Northwestern’s Miller Kopp, among them), re-recruited most of the guys he needed to convince, and generally started to bring some personality to a program that has lacked an identity for years. Oh, and Dane Fife is back. That’s cool, too. I think the hope, at least initially, is that Woodson will be able to raise the floor of the program. Let’s just start there. I’m honestly not sure I’ve spent the appropriate amount of time yet thinking about how all of this might look in execution — the Archieball era was so draining and dumb that I just needed a mental break, to be honest — but the way things set up is intriguing, and we’ll get a first look at things this weekend when the team plays a couple exhibitions in the Bahamas.