While Indiana and Western Kentucky must each deal with a tough stretch of opponents, the Hilltoppers at least got a chance to catch their breath before their matchup on Saturday night.
Though last week's bye came somewhat early, WKU (1-1) still needed it to prepare for a 10-week grind that starts with consecutive Big Ten Conference matchups against the Hoosiers on Saturday night and No. 20 Michigan State next before starting Conference USA play.
Indiana (1-2) also faces a challenging path against three ranked schools over the next four games — as if slowing down the nation's top passing offense (456.6 yards per game) and second best at converting on third down (69%) won't be hard enough in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
“Definitely a very important game for us as we continue to get better and improve,” said Hoosiers coach Tom Allen, whose team aims to get back to .500.
At the very least, Indiana wants to avoid repeating the mistakes that allowed No. 8 Cincinnati to rally for a 38-24 road victory last week in Bloomington. Three turnovers, linebacker Micah McFadden’s ejection for targeting and breakdowns on defense and special teams helped erase several Hoosiers leads.
To improve to 4-0 against the 'Toppers, the Hoosiers can’t afford giving their proficient offense similar opportunities. Especially since WKU with an extra week to prepare.
For his part WKU coach Tyson Helton hopes his team learned their own lessons after falling short 38-35 at Army nearly two weeks ago.
Such as, not digging a three-touchdown hole the Hilltoppers spent much of the second half trying to climb from. WKU quarterback Bailey Zappe, last year’s top passer while at Houston Baptist, certainly made it interesting against the Black Knights by throwing for 435 yards and three touchdowns.
The goal coming out of the reboot is setting the tone with mistake-free football against their Big Ten opponent, which Helton notes won’t be easy with the Hoosiers desperate to make a point after letting one slip away.
“That’s the challenge for us, you know what, if Indiana comes in here and gets those things cleaned up,” the coach said, noting the Power Five program's talent than his squad.
“That doesn’t mean you win the football game. If we play good, disciplined football, make our plays when we’re supposed to, don’t turn the ball over (and) create turnovers, we’ll have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. That’s how football should be set up.”
Some other things to watch as Western Kentucky hosts Indiana in nonconference play:
This might have been the most challenging week of Michael Penix Jr.’s college career. Through three games, he’s completed 48.3% of his passes with four TD passes and three interceptions in both of the Hoosiers’ losses. Then there was the injured right hand that threatened to keep him out of Saturday’s game before X-rays came back negative. Critics also called for his benching in favor of Jack Tuttle, who took over late last season after Penix suffered a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Allen made clear he wasn’t making a change and added, “He’s showing growth and progress and confidence in his knee. So, to me it’s just better decision making.”
Zappe has kept rolling since transferring to WKU from Houston Baptist, completing 75% of his passes for 859 yards and 10 TDs with just two interceptions in two games. He ranks second among FBS passers. Five of his scoring throws have gone for at least 20 yards, including a 73-yarder against UT Martin and a 72-yarder last week at Army. Not surprisingly, his favorite target has been former HBU teammate Jerreth Sterns, who leads WKU with 16 receptions, 278 yards and four TDs, including the 72-yarder.
McFadden’s departure just before halftime last week changed everything for Indiana’s defense against Cincinnati. His return this week certainly will be timely.
“All of our goals are still out in front of us, so let’s get this one at Western Kentucky and then focus on the next game,” he said. “I mean, how cool would it be for the Hoosiers to turn around this season and then come back even stronger from it?”
WKU ranks 91st in total defense at 406 yards allowed per game, including 416 at Army with 339 coming on the ground. Indiana might not pose the same ground threat at first glance (136 yards) but has a potential vulnerability to exploit and lessen the burden on Penix.
AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Bloomington, Indiana, contributed to this report.
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