When the third and relatively final version of the Big Ten football schedule was released in September, few, if any, could have imagined Ohio State’s path to a potential fourth consecutive Big Ten title would run through the Indiana Hoosiers.
2020 has been anything but predictable, however, and that the Hoosiers will visit Columbus on Saturday as a top-10 foe and the leader in the Big Ten’s East Division seems strangely on par for what has already been a wild college football season.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Indiana’s rise this season has coincided with the falls of expected contenders such as Michigan and Penn State, who are a combined 1-7 on the season. Prior to this season, Indiana had beaten Penn State just once and hadn’t beaten Michigan since 1987. Never had the Hoosiers taken down both traditional powers in the same season. Perhaps in a typical year, Indiana starts 2-2 and there is a vastly different but all-too-familiar feel around the program heading into week five.
But this is certainly no typical year, and much to the credit of Hoosiers head coach Tom Allen, Indiana is doing what it has failed to do so often through forgetful year after forgetful year — beating the teams it’s supposed to beat. The Hoosiers have done so in large part thanks to the play of their quarterback, sophomore Michael Penix, and a talented group of receivers led by Tyler Fryfogle and Whop Philyor.
Penix comes into this week’s matchup playing with a lot of confidence after posting back-to-back performances of 300 yards or more passing in wins over Michigan and Michigan State. He missed his first opportunity at the Buckeyes last season when he was lost for the season the week prior to Ohio State’s trip to Bloomington, and will surely be champing at the bit to showcase his talent on the biggest stage of his career.
Ohio State defensive end Tyler Friday said the key to limiting Penix on Saturday will come down to their ability to make the quarterback uncomfortable early and often.
“We just have to make sure he’s uncomfortable,” Friday said on Tuesday. “I think he’s at his best when he’s comfortable and has his feet under him … our whole goal is to get him off his spot and get the ball out of his hands.”
While much will be made of the matchup between Indiana’s passing attack against an Ohio State secondary that came into the season as, perhaps, the team’s biggest question mark, the Hoosiers have shown improvement on the other side of the ball as well.
After finishing a pedestrian 45th in total defense last season, Indiana ranks 18th in the metric this season under second-year defensive coordinator Kane Wommack. In particular, Wommack’s defense has excelled this season at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, doing so from a multitude of looks that bring pressure from all areas of the field. Defensive back Tiawan Mullen leads the Hoosiers with 2.5 sacks on the season, and two more defensive backs have recorded a sack through the first four games, indicative of just how unpredictable Wommack’s blitz designs can be.
“On defense, they’re very, very aggressive,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said on Tuesday. “They come at you a bunch of different ways. It’s hard to figure out where they’re coming from. They blitz a lot and really don’t have a lot of tendencies.”
What all of that means for Indiana as it attempts to take the final and most treacherous step on its way to the top of the Big Ten mountain on Saturday remains to be seen. Despite bullying the lesser teams in the division all the way to the ninth spot in the latest AP Poll, Indiana still finds itself as three-touchdown underdogs against the third-ranked Buckeyes. The vast margin signals a general lack of respect for the Hoosiers’ chances in a game where they will be heavily outmanned in terms of depth and overall talent.
Rest assured, however, Ohio State will not be caught off guard by an improved Indiana team that has more to play for in November than it has in a long time. When asked on Tuesday if he was surprised at all by the success Indiana is having this year, Day said there were signs of Indiana’s growth as a program dating back to last year, and while its play this season may have caught many across the country off guard, it’s been no surprise to him.
Still, with an Ohio State team that is dialed in and hungry to get back on the field after a cancellation last week that left the players “hurt” and “disappointed,” according to Day, Indiana’s margin for error will be razor thin on Saturday in order to simply stay competitive in the game.
The ability of Penix to make plays downfield to talented receivers gives Indiana at least a puncher’s chance, but his fearless approach and willingness to take chances could also spell quick doom for the Hoosiers.
Ohio State’s ability to be balanced on offense will put more strain on Indiana’s defensive approach than there has been all season, and while Wommack may try to throw the kitchen sink at Justin Fields by way of relentless blitz packages, that will also mean plenty of space for the Buckeyes’ playmakers to run when Fields gets the ball out.
Expect Indiana to be game for a quarter or maybe even a half on the strength of some big plays in the passing game, but Fields’ ability to be decisive and accurate with the ball will ultimately be too much for the Hoosiers to keep up with. Ohio State rolls to 4-0 with a 45-24 win.