Indiana isn't done yet.
The Hoosiers have suffered through a difficult beginning to the season, losing to Iowa to open the campaign and then letting a 14-point lead slip away in a 38-24 loss to Cincinnati on Saturday that dropped IU to 1-2.
Despite that inauspicious start, all of the Hoosiers' hopes are still attainable. A Big Ten East Division title, a bowl game victory, a nine-win season – none is out of the question, despite the early losses.
But a turnaround needs to start soon. The Hoosiers can get back to .500 this week when they travel to travel to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for a Saturday matchup against a Western Kentucky team that has been pesky against the Hoosiers in the past.
“As tough as (this start) is, how cool would it be for the Indiana Hoosiers to turn it around?” linebacker Micah McFadden said. “Come back even stronger because of it. ... We are not where we expected to be, but all of our goals are still in front of us. Guys are ready to attack, get this win against Western Kentucky and continue on to Big Ten play.”
Banking a second win before heading back into conference play is especially important because IU starts its divisional schedule with consecutive matchups against No. 6 Penn State, 20th-ranked Michigan State and No. 10 Ohio State. If the Hoosiers can't get past the Hilltoppers (1-1), a 1-6 start is a possibility.
But beating Western Kentucky won't be easy. Though the Hilltoppers are not a Power Five opponent, they boast the No. 1 passing offense in the country, gaining more than 450 yards per game. That aerial attack is led by quarterback Bailey Zappe, who is completing nearly 75% of his passes and has 10 touchdowns in two games.
Four of those scores have gone to 5-foot-9 slot receiver Jerreth Stearns, who has 16 catches for 274 yards and will test All-American Indiana corner Tiawan Mullen on Saturday.
“I look forward to the challenge,” defensive coordinator Charlton Warren said of facing Western Kentucky. “For our guys, what a tremendous opportunity. The best passing team in the country. One of the best third down teams in the country. A seasoned quarterback.
“That group of receivers and that quarterback have been together for years, lighting the scoreboards up. For our guys, it's a tremendous challenge to go out there and to be able to execute.”
The Hoosiers are hoping to execute better offensively, as well, after quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw three more interceptions in the loss to the Bearcats, bringing his total for the season to six.
Hoosiers coach Tom Allen remains confident in Penix and insists a quarterback change is not imminent. IU might do well to keep the ball on the ground against Western Kentucky anyway: The Hilltoppers give up 5.3 yards per carry. They surrendered 200 rushing yards to FCS Tennessee-Martin in Week 1 before struggling to get off the field in a 38-35 loss to triple-option Army in their most recent game Sept. 11.
A rush-heavy attack behind running backs Stephen Carr and Tim Baldwin would take some pressure off Penix, but it would also require a strong performance from an offensive line that has been inconsistent. The Hoosiers' blockers are confident they're ready for that responsibility.
“Our confidence level is still at an all-time high,” offensive lineman Matthew Bedford said. “We know who we are. We know how we play, and we just need to focus on executing the way that we play. When we do that we make yards, we make touchdowns.”
at Western Kentucky
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Houchens Industries-L. T. Smith Stadium, Bowling Green, Ky.
Records: Indiana (1-2), Western Kentucky (1-1)
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 92.3 FM