Conference play opens up for the Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday as they head to Bloomington to take on the Indiana Hoosiers, the first of their five road trips this season. Indiana comes into the contest 2-0 after wins against Ball State and Eastern Illinois to open its season.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen enters his third season at the helm of the Hoosiers program and is looking to end the program’s 23-game losing streak to the Buckeyes; the two teams tied in 1990. Indiana’s last win over Ohio State came in 1988 when it defeated the Buckeyes 41-7 as part a two-game winning streak in the series.
Doing so should prove to be a very difficult challenge for the Hoosiers, who will enter the game as big underdogs. During his Monday press conference, Allen said the entire Big Ten is chasing Ohio State, as has been the case for years, and that winning a game such as the one that will be played in Memorial Stadium on Saturday can change the entire program.
“They’re typical Ohio State,” Allen said of the Buckeyes. “Very, very big, physical, and explosive on both sides of the football. Very dominant up front and have really overwhelmed their first two opponents, a very dynamic quarterback in Justin Fields and a lot of playmakers on both sides of the ball in their skill positions.”
Let’s dive deeper into the players that will be tasked with stopping the Buckeyes in hopes of landing that program-changing win Allen discussed Monday.
Kalen DeBoer was hired away from Fresno State in January to run the Hoosier offense, which has seldom had issues moving the ball through the years. The unit is off to a good start in 2019, albeit against far inferior opponents than what it will see on Saturday.
In its season-opening win over Ball State, Indiana racked up 474 yards of total offense while scoring 34 points. The Hoosiers followed that performance up with a 555-yard, 52-point performance last week against an outgunned FCS team in Eastern Illinois.
Redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. got the starting nod at quarterback for the Hoosiers to begin the season, ahead of Peyton Ramsey, who started all 12 games last season. Penix, a dual-threat quarterback who was also recruited by Ohio State out of Tampa, Florida, has made good on the early confidence he has been shown by the coaching staff.
Penix has thrown for 523 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions through two games, although he was out of last week’s game early due to the lopsided score. Penix added 67 yards rushing on seven carries.
As always seems to be the case, Indiana has more than capable targets for Penix to work with, led by redshirt senior Nick Westbrook.
Buckeye fans should be familiar with the 6-foot-3 Westbrook from last year’s contest when he caught five passes for 109 yards and a touchdown. In the week one win over Ball State, Westbrook caught three passes for 103 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown grab.
Westbrook is joined on the outside by fellow fifth-year senior Donovan Hale, who brings even more size to the position at 6-foot-4. Hale emerged as a playmaker last season, recording 42 receptions for 508 yards and a team-leading six touchdowns.
Hale was held to just one catch against Ball State but caught five passes for 110 yards and a score last week.
Indiana’s receiving group got a major boost this season with the return of junior Whop Philyor, who missed five games last year due to injury. Philyor mans the slot receiver position and has reeled in 10 catches for 141 yards through the Hoosiers’ first two games.
Philyor is also among the team leaders in outspoken confidence, having plenty to say about the looming game against Ohio State shortly after their win against Eastern Illinois.
“We’re gonna see how good we are next weekend against Ohio State,” Philyor said. “But they still gotta play us. Remember that.”
Philyor went on to say, “We come (to Indiana) to beat teams like (Ohio State). We ain’t just trying to play them, we’re trying to beat them.”
For the third straight week, Ohio State will face a capable tight end in 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Peyton Hendershot, who has already recorded nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown through two games.
Ty Fryfogle also figures to be involved in the Hoosiers’ passing attack Saturday. Fryfogle caught 29 passes, three of which were touchdowns, and has eight catches through two games this season.
The Indiana running game will be led once again by Stevie Scott III. A big, physical back at 6-foot-2, Scott ran for 1,137 yards and 10 touchdowns as a true freshman last season. He was bottled up for the most part in the week one win over Ball State, carrying the ball 19 times for just 48 yards, although he did score twice. Last week, Scott bounced back with a 61-yard performance on just 12 carries in very limited playing time.
Behind Scott, sophomore Ronnie Walker Jr. and freshman Sampson James have each seen carries through the first two games. Walker was the 19th-ranked running back recruit in the 2018 class, according to 247 Sports, and James was once committed to play at Ohio State.
Last season, the Indiana offensive line struggled to protect its quarterbacks, giving up 29 sacks, although they did pave the way for Scott’s monster season.
The unit has the chance to take a significant leap forward with the return of four players with starting experience, led by seniors Coy Cronk, Hunter Littlejohn and Simon Stepaniak.
Cronk started 11 games at left tackle last season and has started in 38 of his 39 games at Indiana. Littlejohn, an Olentangy Liberty alum, has started 26 games at center in his Indiana career. Stepaniak has logged 22 career starts at right guard.
Redshirt sophomore Caleb Jones played in 11 games at right tackle last season and gives the Hoosiers more experience along the offensive line.
Junior Harry Crider has started at left guard in each of Indiana’s first two games after seeing action in six games last season and in eight games at center as a freshman in 2017.
As a unit, the Hoosiers average 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds across the line.
Indiana defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kane Wommack was appointed to the position last December after spending his first year in Bloomington only coaching the linebackers. He was hand-picked by Allen to lead the 4-2-5 defense he brought to the program in 2016.
Wommack has been tasked with fixing a defense which gave up an average of 424 yards per game last season.
Along the defensive line, the Hoosiers lost several contributors, including Nikes Sykes, who was second on the team in sacks with three.
Redshirt junior Jerome Johnson returns at tackle after leading the team with 3.5 sacks and adding 5.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Demarcus Elliott, a junior college transfer, will start next Johnson inside. Elliott already has six tackles and a sack through two games this season.
On the edge, sophomore James Head Jr. is perhaps the most talented player of the unit. Head, who is long at 6-foot-5, posted 17 tackles a season ago, including three for loss, and has already recorded 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks this season.
Gavin Everett, a redshirt senior, started 11 games a season ago and recorded 5.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore Alfred Bryant saw action in 10 games last season and has been on the field early and often this season. He recorded three tackles, two for loss, in last week’s win over Eastern Illinois.
Senior Allen Stallings IV was a significant contributor last season, especially in the game against Ohio State, and will be in the rotation at defensive end, as will junior college transfer Juan Harris at tackle.
At linebacker, Indiana will be led by fifth-year senior Reakwon Jones, who started 10 games last season as their weakside linebacker. Jones recorded 36 tackles as a junior, including a career-high seven stops in Ohio Stadium last season.
For the second time in as many seasons, Indiana is looking to replace its top producer at linebacker. Dameon Willis Jr. finished second on the team in tackles last season but has since graduated, leaving a void.
Sophomore Micah McFadden played in all 12 games a season ago and has played well early this season, recording 1.5 tackles for loss and nine total stops.
James Miller and Cam Jones have also received playing time over the first two games.
In the secondary is where the Hoosiers’ best defender can be found. Redshirt junior Marcelino Ball will man Indiana’s “Husky” position, a hybrid linebacker and safety role.
Ball received honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and the media last season after recording 59 tackles, 7.5 of which were for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. A playmaker in every sense of the word, Ball will have to be his disruptive self Saturday to limit Ohio State’s offense.
At cornerback, the Hoosiers have experience returning, particularly in fifth-year senior Andre Brown Jr., who has started 29 games in his career.
Senior safety Khalil Bryant returns after playing in 11 games last season and starting nine of them. He recorded 38 tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble. Fellow safety Bryant Fitzgerald led the team with three interceptions as a redshirt freshman last season and Indiana could use him forcing turnovers again on Saturday if it is to hang around.
The last thing Indiana can afford on Saturday is any mistakes in the kicking game. The Hoosiers will have the benefit of experienced and solid kicking specialists in senior kicker Logan Justus ad fifth-year senior punter Haydon Whitehead.
Justus was 15-for-18 in field goal attempts last season, including a perfect 11-for-11 inside 40 yards. He was named second-team All-Big Ten for efforts and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.
This season, he has connected on all four of his attempts, all of which came against Ball State and included a career-long make from 50 yards.
Whitehead has averaged 46.5 yards through his six punts this season, including a 63-yard boom.