Jack Tuttle was more accurate than Michael Penix Jr. at quarterback and Tim Baldwin Jr. out-rushed Stevie Scott III out of the backfield.
Rather than a Who’s Who of usual Indiana football leaders during this 2020 joyride through the Big Ten, it was fresh hero introduction day at Memorial Stadium as the Hoosiers very gradually strangled visiting Maryland, 27-11, Saturday afternoon.
Yards and points came hard, though the Hoosiers led all the way while amassing enough of both to repel the best Maryland tricks and solidify and prove solid the team’s No. 12 nationally ranking.
It was pretty much ghost-town football during this continuing saga of a college football season played out against the backdrop of a worldwide virus pandemic.
The only live witnesses in the stadium were relatives of players, perhaps 200 on the IU side and maybe 25 on the Maryland side, and the campus itself was deserted, completely emptied for Thanksgiving. As IU improved to 5-1, continuing to carve out its best season in more than 50 years, fans missed the latest chapter of achievement.
“It was a hard-fought football game,” said Hoosiers’ coach Tom Allen. “They made it hard on us. We kept chipping away.”
The Terrapins, aka the Turtles, didn’t care how many fans were in the stands as long as they were on a field. After two consecutive cancellations stemming from the coronavirus, they hadn’t played since Nov. 7.
Maryland competed with 23 players inactive, but coach Michael Locksley offered no alibis when people are dying from the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, not merely being sidelined from an extracurricular activity.
“It’s going to be an issue,” Locksley said. “We knew that all year long. We’re not the first team that has had to deal with it.”
A week after Indiana distinguished itself in a spirited loss to highly regarded Ohio State, the need was to brush aside the dangerous, highly motivated Terrapins.
Yet shades of the Buckeyes, whose own game against Wisconsin Saturday was called off because of the virus, Maryland started with what appeared to be the same kind of shock and awe offense.
What the eye beheld and the numbers betrayed, however, was a propensity to eat up yards, but not get beyond the goal-line. Maryland was stymied into exasperation, Locksley blaming himself for the almosts.
“I was disappointed in our execution on the offensive side,” Locksley said.
Three interceptions by IU and three sacks of sophomore quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, brother of Miami Dolphins QB Tua, defined the game.
IU’s defense doesn’t own a fancy nickname like some of the storied units of the NFL past, but the Hoosiers steadily have gained a reputation as kings of turnovers.
“The defense continues to create takeaways,” Allen said. “Great job taking the ball away.”
Tiawan Mullen, Jaylin Williams and Micah McFadden intercepted Tagovailoa, with their friends harassing him out of the pocket and provoking desperation throws. At times it seemed the officials were stuck on rewind for the phrase “intentional grounding,” although the penalties were not always accepted. One sack went for a safety.
“They did a lot of disguises,” Tagovailoa said of the Hoosier defensive schemes. “There was pressure from all over.”
Maryland (2-2) drove the field and the Hoosiers slammed the door. On the game’s first series, the Terrapins moved from their own 25-yard-line to the IU 12 — and then missed a field goal. Later in the quarter the Terrapins marched from their 25 to the 29 and Tagovailoa threw his first pick.
Uncharacteristically, Penix was off form. The player who drew critical raves for his near-500-yard passing game against Ohio State went 6-for-19 for 84 yards. He often seemed to be throwing from a boat bobbing atop waves.
So on O, the Hoosiers went with the run. Scott provided stability with 88 yards and touchdown churns of 3, 1, and 2 yards, taking direct snaps in a freshly-introduced wildcat formation.
“We ran it a lot in practice to make sure we had it down pat,” Scott said. “It’s something we’ve been working on. It’s something different. That was something I was very excited coach had in the playbook.”
Baldwin, a 6-foot, 217-pound freshman from Nokesville, Virginia, was just glad he was in the playbook at all. Baldwin abruptly became more famous than Alec Baldwin and is now the flavor-the-week.
The showing left him explaining his depth-chart rise.
“Patience, reps and film study,” Baldwin said. “It’s a little bit of everything.”
The Hoosiers High of the whole season was dented when Penix, the main front man on a team with several leaders, got hurt late in the third quarter after a 21-yard run. He left the field limping, with help, a lower right leg injury scheduled to undergo further medical evaluation.
Along came the unheralded Tuttle, a redshirt sophomore who appeared in five games last year after transferring from Utah, where he played in zero games. Tuttle went 5-for-5 passing for 31 yards, the understudy gaining Best Supporting Actor recognition.
Normally noticed only when something catastrophic happens, punter Haydon Whitehead made a major contribution to the ensemble, averaging 45.4 yards on seven boots with a 53-yard long, prompting Allen to call the Hoosiers “a complete team.”
Special teams, defense, the running game subbing for the passing game, all the arithmetic added up.