Ohio State is set to face Indiana on Saturday, and for the Hoosiers’ defense, this particular game could turn out to be a classic example of bringing a knife to a gun fight. I say that because IU is not – and has not – been in the business of slowing many opponents down this season, which is less than ideal with C.J Stroud and company on the schedule. The Buckeyes will not be looking to spare any feelings in The Shoe, as they continue their march toward Big Ten supremacy. So buckle up, Hoosier fans.
The most frustrating part for Tom Allen and his team has to be the fact that they absolutely do have talent on the defensive side of the ball. Tiawan Mullen was an All-American cornerback in 2020. His partner on the other side, CB Jaylin Williams, earned All-Big Ten recognition the same year. Safeties Bryant Fitzgerald and Devon Matthews have more experience than arguably any other duo in the Big Ten, Dasan McCullough is likely a Freshman All-American up front, and linebacker Aaron Casey is a tackle-for-loss machine.
And yet, Indiana’s defense is a turnstile! They have given up at least 20 points in every game, and allow an average of 32.2 per, good for 114th (!) in the country. Closing out the season with Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Purdue certainly will not help matters, but such is life in the Big Ten East (I do realize that Purdue is in the West, keep it movin’).
Regardless of how or why this concerning trend has continued – IU finished No. 109 in PPG allowed last season – it is now fair to question whether or not Allen will be around (employed) to witness a potential Hoosier-sance. I, for one, believe that he has earned the benefit of the doubt... for another year or two, at least. But the respected head coach likely felt walls closing in around him, so he took multiple actions to address last year’s poor performance. Much of his coaching staff is comprised of new faces, including new defensive coordinator Chad Wilt.
The program also brought in a number of experienced transfers from notable P5 schools. One of those players was Bradley Jennings Jr. The sixth-year linebacker experienced a mini-breakout for Miami (FL) in 2020, but took a major step back during the 2021 season. Now in Bloomington, he has become a jack of all trades, earning this week’s title of Defensive Player to Watch.
Jennings Jr. was a three-star recruit all the way back in 2017, out of Jacksonville, Florida. He saw limited action from 2017-2019, but made great strides for the Hurricanes in 2020. While starting 11 games at middle linebacker, he totaled 39 tackles, with 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. A far cry from elite production, but Jennings Jr. had seemingly turned a corner. However, 2021 did not go according to plan, and the super duper senior found himself in search of a new college football home. He eventually settled in Bloomington, and although not a full-time starter right away, has made a significant and much-needed impact for this Indiana football team.
After a six-tackle, one-sack performance in his Hoosier debut, Jennings Jr. went radio silent for much of September. He totaled just six tackles in three games against Idaho, Western Kentucky, and Cincinnati, while (Aaron) Casey and Cam Jones dominated snaps at linebacker. Unfortunately, Jones suffered an injury during IU’s game at Nebraska, knocking the three-time captain and Big Ten’s leading tackler (at the time) out of the lineup. Jennings Jr. has taken the majority of those snaps, and played very well ever since.
Against TTUN, Indiana gave up 31 points, but held their opponent to 10 in the first half. The Wolverines put up three scores after halftime, all of which came through the air. Blake Corum was held to “just” 124 yards rushing, and Jennings Jr. was one of the players who made it tough(er) sledding for him. The former Miami Hurricane racked up 13 tackles against Corum and company, limiting the star RB to his lowest rushing total (at the time) in Big Ten play. Was it an award-worthy performance for Jennings Jr. and his teammates? No, but I’m sorry, this Hoosiers defense just doesn’t have much to hang their hat on.
The veteran LB continued his strong play for the duration of October and into November. At Rutgers on Oct. 22, he totaled 10 tackles and three pass breakups, giving him five PBU on the year. After his team’s bye, Jennings Jr. returned to the field last week and added five tackles against Penn State. All things considered, he has been one of IU’s unsung heroes on defense, even if the team stats do not reflect that of a heroic effort. And it is unfortunate that it took a Cam Jones injury for Jennings Jr. to receive additional playing time, but he is certainly making the most of his opportunity.
Jennings Jr. might not be most talented defender on his team. He might not even crack the top-5, but he has arguably been one of Indiana’s most influential and consistent players on that side of the ball, since taking over as a FT starter. The 6-foot-1, 210 pounder is averaging 8.5 tackles per game over the Hoosier’s last four, while adding four of his five PBU. And while his play might not dictate the outcome of the game, it is always great to see a player perform well after sticking with it for so long. I will have an eye on Jennings Jr. come Saturday, but hopefully as he is making downfield tackles against a successful Ohio State rushing attack.