After playing their most complete game since Virginia Tech, Ohio State hopes to have moved beyond their early season inconsistencies as it heads into conference play. It should be a good one, as the Buckeyes square off against an Indiana team who sits at 4-0 for the first time since 1990. Naturally, Hoosier fans are excited:
@Landgrant33 sup, fellow contender?— Crimson Quarry (@crimsonquarry) September 10, 2015
That enthusiasm led to Indiana fans attempting to--and nearly pulling off-- being the host of College GameDay. There may even have homefield advantage on Saturday! While there may not be as big a Buckeye contingent in Memorial Stadium as years past, you can bet to see more Scarlet and Gray in the crowd on Saturday than IU is willing to admit. Regardless, it should be a great atmosphere to kick off conference play. Here are five things to watch Saturday afternoon:
At least it's not Tevin Coleman
In last season's game at The Shoe, then-Indiana running back Tevin Coleman torched the Buckeyes for 228 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Needless to say, his decision to jump to the NFL was celebrated by not only the Buckeyes, but the whole Big Ten. Usually, Indiana wouldn't be in position to replace such a prolific player, but current running back Jordan Howard has more than delivered in his stead.
Howard is a castoff from the now-defunct UAB football program, and finds himself as the nation's leading rusher. Howard has gained at least 145 yards in each game this season, albeit with only one coming against Power 5 competition. He is less explosive than Coleman, but provides consistency, and a physical element to the Hoosier run game. Howard not only keeps the chains moving, but has also yet to fumble this season in 111 carries.
The Indiana ground game features a lot of both inside and outside zone, and it's imperative that the middle of the Ohio State run defense has a better day than they did versus Western Michigan. Last week, Jarvion Franklin was able to get to the second level and punish the back seven with his physical style. If need be, Howard can also run in a similar style. If Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington have a productive day in freeing lanes for the linebackers and safeties, Ohio State can make Indiana's offense one-dimensional.
If Ohio State slows down Howard, it can shift it's attention towards limiting what's been an explosive Indiana passing attack. The Hoosiers rank 36th in the country in passing IsoPPP, and 20th nationally in passing plays over 20 yards. After an injury last season, quarterback Nate Sudfeld has impressed so far, compiling a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while completing 61 percent of passes at nearly 9 yards per attempt.
The main beneficiary of those explosive plays has been junior receiver Ricky Jones. Jones is a speedster, having only caught 18 passes this season, but for 411 yards. It's not as though Indiana is just throwing deep to him, either. Jones can navigate through the middle of a defense on screens and slants, and a small crease can lead to a big gain. He's also been efficient so far, catching 62 percent of his targets on the season.
It's a good bet that Jones will break open for at least a couple of big plays Saturday. The Buckeyes have been content to limit opponents' short passing games and risk giving up long passing plays thus far, ranking 2nd nationally in Passing Success Rate, but only 76th in Passing IsoPPP. The Buckeye secondary has been electric this season, and it's up to Gareon Conley and Eli Apple stay on an island with Jones, tackle, and limit the big plays.
Throw, throw again, then throw some more
Would you be surprised if I told you that Indiana has a problem giving up big plays? Defense hasn't exactly been the strong suit of the Kevin Wilson era, and things are no different this season. The Hoosiers are particularly ghastly through the air, ranking 94th in Passing IsoPPP. So far, Indiana opponents haven't bothered much running the ball on standard downs, preferring to throw 51 percent of the time, good for 116th in the country. Whether that's a problem with getting pressure (87th in havoc rate), or just poor back seven play, it's clear that throwing is a wise decision.
Despite Ohio State's preference to run the ball on nearly 60 percent of standard downs, we may see a change of philosophy this week. Meyer noted that Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall have each been performing well, while also saying that Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel, amongst others, deserve more touches. This would be a good week to do it; against a weak secondary that has the propensity to give up big plays. Michael Thomas has been spectacular so far this season, and if the defense chooses to focus on him, it could lead to big things for any of those four players. Plus, it's not like we already haven't seen what Miller and Marshall can do against an Indiana defense.
Finally, no controversy
After being pulled from the Northern Illinois game, it was nice to see Cardale Jones get into a groove versus Western Michigan and play most of the game without looking over his shoulder. Jones posted his highest yards per attempt since the Virginia Tech game, and spread the ball amongst receivers and running backs nicely. Granted, there were still some kinks, as underthrown deep balls were again a theme, but for the most part, Jones looked good.
It also marks the first week of the year with no 'OR' on the quarterback section of the depth chart, a sign that the coaches are all in on Jones as the starter. With the talent at receiver, Indiana's defense should allow Jones another big step up in confidence as the Buckeyes get into the heart of the schedule. Despite Jones' erratic deep accuracy, the Buckeyes should look to keep going long this week.
You know the stat; under Urban Meyer, Ohio State hasn't lost a regular season conference game in 3 seasons. The first won't be coming on Saturday, either. It's great that Indiana is 4-0. The program has been longing for some success, and even with a loss on Saturday are on track for a bowl.
The Hoosiers also have three one-possession wins over Southern Illinois, Western Kentucky, and Wake Forest. They've looked atrocious on defense, again, and there are few things that point to them stopping the Ohio State offense.
Indiana's defensive problems play right into the offensive strengths of Ohio State. Have a problem generating big plays? Good news, you get the Hoosier defense this week! Having trouble protecting your quarterback? Bring on the team ranked 83rd in adjusted sack rate! The bottom line is that Indiana, doesn't have much to stop Ohio State, especially now that they're down a starting defensive lineman.
Even with those flaws, it's still a good opponent for Ohio State to start conference play with. The Hoosiers might be paper tigers in the long run, but stand 4-0, present problems on offense, and will have a nice road environment. Indiana has played the Buckeyes tough in 2 of the last three games, so the history of this being a good game is there. Despite that, Vegas and the advanced stats still like Ohio State by about three touchdowns. That feels about right, given what we know about these two teams. It's also that type of strong win Ohio State can use to kickstart conference play.