Itching to get back on the field, Ohio State is preparing for its biggest game of the season as ninth-ranked Indiana — yes, that Indiana — travels to Columbus on Saturday to take on the third-ranked Buckeyes in a battle that will likely decide the Big Ten’s East Division.
In addition to getting ready for a confident group of Hoosiers, the Buckeyes are also looking to overcome a bit of adversity that hit last week with the cancellation of their game against Maryland due to COVID-19 concerns within the Maryland program. During Ryan Day’s weekly meeting with the media on Tuesday, the head coach discussed the challenge that awaits his team on Saturday after an unfortunate and relatively unaffordable week off.
“The hard part is Indiana had an opportunity to play, and now they’ve played four straight weeks, so they have a little bit of a rhythm going,” Day said of last week’s game cancellation. “We didn’t, and when you’re missing out on the spring (practices), you’re missing out on the preseason, it certainly hurts when you’re not playing games.”
Day said his players handled the cancellation well, although they were initially “disappointed” and “angry” at not being able to play. Despite the emotions, he said the team moved forward and went back to work knowing that “nobody feels bad for us” in a year where game cancellations are prevalent across the country.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the good news is that’s behind us, and we’re on to Indiana,” Day said. “That’s where all the focus is.”
It would behoove Ohio State to maintain that focus on an Indiana team that enters the matchup 4-0 for the first time since 1987 after a 24-0 shutout of Michigan State last week. While Indiana has shown vast improvement all over the field, its newfound success is thanks, in large part, to the play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Michael Penix, who missed the game against the Buckeyes — and the remainder of Indiana’s games — last season due to a leg injury.
Penix has tossed nine touchdown passes on the season, including multiple touchdowns in all four games, for an Indiana offense that is averaging nearly 34 points per game. He has also thrown just three interceptions while averaging 38 attempts per game.
“I think he’s really playing mistake-free,” Day said of Penix’s play. “He’s making a lot of plays, he keeps them on schedule. He’s made some really big-time throws in tight spots, and he’s fearless. You have to give him a lot of credit. Right now, he’s playing almost perfectly, and so that’s a big challenge.”
In addition to the play of Penix, Day said Indiana has solid weapons around its quarterback and has done a good job of protecting Penix for the most part.
“When you add that all up, that’s why you have a team that is 4-0 coming in here,” Day said.
Indiana’s play and subsequent record have emerged as an unlikely storyline as the Big Ten season enters the second half of the schedule. However, Day said on Tuesday that the Hoosiers’ success hasn’t taken anyone who will be on either sideline on Saturday by surprise.
“I think if you asked Indiana, they would say they’re not that surprised,” Day said of the success. “I’m not that surprised. I think they have a really good scheme on both sides of the ball, they do a good job coaching, they’ve upgraded their personnel … in 2020, anything can happen. So you just don’t know, but I’m not surprised by this at all.”
Asked what has led to Indiana’s rise in 2020, Day said, “They do a really good job on offense of spreading you out and then running and being physical on the inside. On defense, they’re very, very aggressive. They come at you a bunch of different ways, so it’s hard to figure out where they’re coming from. They blitz a lot and really don’t have a lot of tendencies … and then they’re playing very well on special teams. Their returner has done a good job.
“And coaching, they’re playing with great energy, so I think when you mix all that stuff together, that’s what you’re getting. You’re getting a team that is playing at a high level and hasn’t made a whole bunch of mistakes.”
Day said there were signs of improvement for Indiana last year as they got stronger throughout the season en route to an 8-5 campaign, and he pointed out that the Hoosiers were without Penix, who was lost to injury in week three.
While Saturday will serve as a true measuring stick for just how far the Indiana program has come this season under head coach Tom Allen, there is still much to learn about Ohio State as well. Although the Buckeyes have been dominant in each of their three wins this season, plenty of mistakes have left ample room for growth as they seek a return trip to the Big Ten Championship game and another berth in the College Football Playoff.
But time is beginning to run thin in terms of progression and development for Day and his team with just four weeks remaining in the regular season and just three games under their belts. Day said he knows the makeup of his team mentally, which will bode well for its ability to remain focused in a season where distractions have never been more plentiful, but there is still much to learn on the field, which can only be done by actually being on the field.
“You don’t know about your team, but at the same time, we kind of know who we are because we’ve just seen us go through so much adversity,” Day said of the odd circumstances. “We’ve seen the way we’ve responded to things, we’ve seen the daily decisions and sacrifices that have been made over time … we just haven’t played a lot of football, that’s the crazy thing. There’s no way to replace playing in games, and so we’re just going to keep moving on and take each day and every game as it comes, understand that each game is a blessing, and try to get better.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.