In an evening that saw Ohio State playing a walking wounded defense, those that stayed in uniform didn't look entirely dissimilar from the substandard offerings of recent past weeks. While the Buckeyes and the opposing Indiana Hoosiers combined for a thousand yards cumulative offense, OSU was able to bear down and make plays when necessary to move to 7-0 on the season.
Braxton Miller continued to be a one man tour de force for the Buckeyes completing 13-of-24 passes for 211 yards, 2 TDs, and one immediately regrettable pick. Miller also added 149 yards rushing on 23 carries, seemingly Miller's sweet spot of late (though it's worth mentioning he did go down in a heap on a late hit out of bounds for the third or fourth time in as many weeks), and also broke a 67 yard rushing touchdown.
The defense will steal all the story lines for the
fourth fifth sixth seventh straight week as they allowed an absurd 481 yards to a just top 50 Indiana offense (though sure to be rising after Ohio State's display of defensive generosity). While the Hoosiers showed much more than signs of life offensively in Kevin Wilson's second year at the helm, giving up 352 passing yards is particularly troubling from a secondary that's given little reason for optimism week in week out this young season. Luke Fickell and Everett Withers' group especially looked lost late in the game as Indiana scored a series of would-be garbage touchdowns (including one following a successful onside kick) keeping Ohio State fans on the heels in a night that seemingly dragged on and on.
In a sharp contrast to some of the more disheartening early efforts on the 2012 campaign, Ohio State's inaugural drive of the night was crisp. Queued by Braxton Miller completions to Corey Brown and Jake Stoneburner, Miller made the rest happen with his feet before handing off to Brown on a straight-out-of-Meyer's Florida day wide receiver handoff to give the Buckeyes a quick 6-0 lead. A Drew Basil point after made it 7-0... and then Ohio State found themselves at the precipice of bat country.
After a series of punts between the two team, Ohio State fans had some positives to drawn. The Bucks were trying creative, new things on a defense that sorely needed them. Fullback/tight end/h-back Zach Boren played double digit snaps at linebacker. With senior captain Etienne Sabino sidelined for in upwards of three games and freshman Joshua Perry likely not a permanent answer (particularly in nickel scenarios), the team rotated Storm Klein and Boren in the early goings. The defensive line showed a variety of looks as well with frosh Noah Spence seeing playing time at LEO and Michael Bennett and Joel Hale get into the rotation from the get go as well.
Following a series of respective stall outs by each offense, the Buckeyes settled for a 35 yard Drew Basil field goal and a 10-0 lead coupled with early strength on both sides seemed to be setting a tone that Ohio State would live up to the high margins of victory many predicted. But almost immediately on the ensuing Indiana drive, the negative Ohio State defense that prompted so many bad pizza delivery driver jokes throughout the last several days made their first of many appearances on the night.
Hoosiers quarterback Cameron Coffman completed three consecutive passes, a 9 yarder to Cody Lattimer, an 8 yarder to tight end Ted Bolser, and an 11 yarder to Lattimer again to set the stage for the first of many head scratching sequences for the Buckeyes on the night. Coffman would hand off to sophomore tailback Stephen Houston who'd break away against a series of hapless Buckeye defenders before going 59 yards for a touchdown. Mitch Ewald's point after try made it a 10-7 score and effectively opened the flood gates for Ohio State fans' second guessing.
After another Ohio State offensive series sputtered out, shades of Ben Buchanan against Arkansas reared their ugly head as the now senior had his punt blocked, the second such occurrence of the season. Isaiah Roundtree's deflection gave the Hoosiers the ball at the Buckeyes 16 and a handoff to Houston again gave the Hoosiers the ball at the OSU 12 entering the second.
Coffman's successful strike to Bolser made it second and five for the Hoosiers who then punched it in on another Houston touchdown run. The Buckeyes trailed 14-10 and there was plenty of reason to have serious doubts about Ohio State's prospects of winning this one as expected. Ohio State would do little to erase these driving down the field only to miss a Basil field goal and return the ball to the Hoosiers.
But after trading ineffective drives, Ohio State brought the house against an Indiana put and returned the Hoosier's favor from earlier. Starting Ohio State corner Travis Howard got a piece of a punt and his running mate Bradley Roby hopped on the loose ball to regive Ohio State the lead, 17-14 after a point after.
The Buckeyes seemed to find themselves with four minutes to go in the half when after a long Carlos Hyde rush, Braxton Miller threw what may have been his best pass of the season. Hitting a streaking Devin Smith in stride, the two combined on a 60 yard connection which opened the lead up to 24-14. Despite tacking on 20+ yards just before the half, Ohio State seemed headed in the right direction going into the locker room.
The second half, however, quickly saw an undesired return to form. A quasi positive momentum laden Hoosier drive gave way to Ewald's first field goal of the afternoon, closing the gap to a touchdown at 24-17. But Braxton Miller would Braxton Miller way back into restored confidence for the Buckeyes with a Heisman worthy 67 yard touchdown run.
With the Buckeyes up 31-17, after forcing a quick three and out, Ohio State would drive the length of the field and appear to be on the precipice of putting the game away. But a bizarrely Favre-ian improvisation turned nightmare toss in the end zone would return possession (and momentum) to the Hoosiers.
Cameron Coffman found former Glenville Tarblooder (and one time Ohio State recruit of mutual interest) Shane Wynn. The diminutive wide receiver/scat back would dash into the open field and escape any chance of being caught going 76 yards in the process to help put Indiana back within scratching distance, 31-24. The touchdown marked the longest play from scrimmage the Buckeyes had allowed in conference play since 2003.
OSU had an answer, for once. Rod Smith ran authoritatively and Braxton Miller did much of the same before (as mentioned earlier) he would be hit on a late play out of bounds and have to leave for the remainder of the series. But Kenny Gution, as unheralded as he is for being so good at what he does, came in and once again the offense barely skipped a beat. Guiton flicked a shovel pass to a striding Carlos Hyde who went 14 yards in for a touchdown to break the lead back open to 14, 38-24. Indiana would close the quarter with a field goal, and though long (as the entire game would be/feel), Ohio State's 11 point lead didn't feel that close.
Even the open of the fourth quarter would feel as though Ohio State were further asserting themselves. After a 21 yard run by Carlos Hyde landed him just shy of the end zone, he'd get the delayed gratification he deserved on the next snap and open things up 45-27 for the Bucks. Indiana would then proceed to respond with a 4 minute drive capped by a D'Angelo Roberts touchdown run (making the score 45-34), but Ohio State still weren't done. A 6 play 75 yard touchdown drive capped on another Braxton Miller to Devin Smith connection, seemingly put the game away in the process with the score 52-34. But there was no quit in the Hoosiers yet.
With the Ohio State defense already battered and bruised, Indiana would turn on a late surge that would not only echo how hard they played, but also expose the worst of how Ohio State's looked at their lowest moments on the season. With 3:58 to play, Indiana would assume possession at their own 33 and stage a march that would not only pad their stats, but culminate with backup true freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld hitting Duwyce Wilson for a 12 yard touchdown shrinking the Ohio State lead to 11. After a successful onside kick, Sudfeld and co. seemingly drove at will once again. The worn down Buckeyes defense would give up a 25 yard Sudfeld to Stephen Houston pass and catch touchdown and then an ensuing direct snap to Cody Latimer two point conversion run would mean OSU were up by just 3. Effectively the Buckeyes stood an onside kick bounce away from potentially tying or winning the game.
While lightning wouldn't strike a second time and Ohio State were left to run out the clock and preserve the win, the superficial damage was done. Though Ohio State's defense hasn't looked up to snuff really ever (outside of stretches) during Urban Meyer's inaugural go at it, the issues on that side of the ball were particularly compounded by the superficial explosion of late points. That the defense wasn't even fully resorting to backups at that juncture probably further emphasizes how many areas of improvement Ohio State still have to soul search about. For all their talent, for two defensive coordinators both with head coaching experience, that Urban Meyer is having to publicly emphasize that he'll be more involved with the defense in the coming weeks probably isn't a good thing for the defense nor positive indicators of their respective job performances.
Yes, Luke Fickell isn't beyond reproach and despite taking a bullet for the Buckeyes last year and helping pave the road for this year's team, his defense simply hasn't been up to snuff. His return was viewed as a stepping stone, transitional smoothing gesture, but also one that supposedly gave the Buckeyes stability while a long shaky offense struggled to gain their own. It clearly hasn't worked out according to plan. For all Luke Fickell's positive attributes (and he deserves much credit for plural top 10 defenses after taking over more play calling duties following the 35-3 debacle against SC which had many guessing how much longer Jim Heacock could man those effectively), the defense of last season was sub-typical Buckeye standards and this year's has been even worse. Everett Withers hasn't provided the stability to the secondary he was brought in to ostensibly do either, and if Ohio State continues to trend more towards the Texas/West Virginia/Baylor tier of defensive aptitude, either or both may not be long for their working relationships with Meyer.
But let's also look at the bigger picture: Ohio State is 7-0. Yes, there's plenty to work on (see: ten sloppy penalties), and while the defense will still have to battle through injuries that saw first week effective starting middle linebacker Zach Boren lead the team in tackles at 8, all is not lost. Yes, the Buckeyes gave up 26 first downs to Indiana (and seemingly 3/4 of those during the second half alone), but as they continue to break in talented underclassmen and return those seniors who've missed time with injury, it's still not inconceivable that the team finds some much needed stability. As the team continues to progress, 8-0 is still very doable. While 12-0 has never felt less sure, maybe it's not supposed to. Beating Purdue and moving on to 8-0 is the target, and for all the Buckeyes' fatal flaws, it's still very much well within their grasps.