The first Big Ten game of the season for Ohio State didn't go exactly according to plan, as the Buckeyes survived a serious scare at Indiana on Saturday, 34-27. Indiana refused to go away, as the game ended on a defensive stand by Ohio State that sealed the win with less than 10 seconds left near the goal line. A third and goal drop from the Hoosiers that would have likely set up either a tie or another play to go for two and steal a win likely sealed Indiana's fate. A credit to backup quarterback Zander Diamont who brought the Hoosiers back and kept the game close until the end, but the Buckeyes are able to stay undefeated.
After a significant improvement from quarterback Cardale Jones against Western Michigan, the junior gunslinger started fairly consistent in the game but threw an interception and had a few off throws in the second half. Ohio State had yet another slow start to the game, as Indiana's defense was stout against the run early on. Indiana soon led 3-0 and would close out the first quarter with the same score.
It didn't get much better from there. Ohio State was held to six points in the first half and despite showing signs of life, continued to get in its own way with turnovers, penalties, and stalled drives in the endzone. After trailing 10-6 for what seemed like a lifetime, Ezekiel Elliott finally got the first touchdown of the day for the Buckeyes blazing past the defense for 55 yards, putting Ohio State up 13-10 midway through the third quarter. He then added a 60+ yard run for a score on fourth and one.
Still, it's no secret that the Buckeyes aren't quite meeting expectations. Five games into the season, the top ranked team in the country should have a lot of the little mistakes cleared up. Instead, there are more questions than answers as to why Ohio State is having trouble against less talented teams. Below are three things to know from Saturday's 34-27 win over the Hoosiers.
3 things we learned:
1. Slow starts aren't helping the offense build any rhythm. Other than the Virginia Tech game, slow starts have been typical of Ohio State's offense. Along with the inconsistency that remains throughout the game, the offense has failed to get any sort of support system for Cardale Jones and the rest of the offense. After two drives against the Hoosiers, the Buckeyes had only three yards of total offense and two three-and-outs.
After being held scoreless in the first quarter for the first time all season, Ohio State had just 36 yards to its name. At the end of the first half, the Buckeyes had only rushed for 14 yards.
It wasn't until in the second quarter that the offense finally found its footing. Cardale Jones connected with Nick Vannett on a deep pass down the middle, followed by a screen pass to Dontre Wilson that went down the sideline for a good chunk of yardage. But the main point to take away from that drive was that Ohio State seems to operate at its best when the tempo is at a much quicker pace than what the playcalling has been so far this season. Jones would finish the day with just under 300 yards through the air on 18-of-27 passing while Ezekiel Elliott added his 10th-consecutive 100-yard rushing game and three touchdowns.
Elliott's late third quarter run on fourth down in Ohio State territory put the Buckeyes back on top 20-17 following the extra point. Cardale Jones would then find wide open Michael Thomas in the endzone to give Ohio State some cushion to its lead over Indiana 27-17. Follow that up with Ezkeiel Elliott somehow bursting through the Indiana defense on a 75-yard touchdown run to put Ohio State up 34-20, and Elliott totaled just under 300 yards rushing.
The redzone seems to be another issue as well, as both times the Buckeyes made it to the redzone in the first half, they came away only with a field goal. Even after a failed fake punt by Indiana that gave the ball to Ohio State at the Hoosiers' 16-yard line. In fact, coming into the game on Saturday, the Buckeyes offense ranked 113th nationally in redzone scoring and their struggles continued against Indiana.
2. Seriously, what's wrong with the offensive line? It was around this time last season that Ohio State's offensive line woes seemed to slowly disappear. After receiving quite a bit of criticism during the first three or four games last season, the line vastly improved over the course of the remaining schedule and molded into one of the best units in the country. This season, it doesn't show any signs of being able to reach that level again.
From opening the game and getting simply pushed off the line by opposing defenses, to the poor run blocking and pass blocking, nothing seems to be working for Taylor Decker, Pat Elflein and the rest of the line. The frustrating part is that it's hard to pinpoint any one thing that isn't working or what is causing the problems for the offensive line. Urban Meyer has pointed to opposing defenses lining up in different formations and the issues against 3-4 defenses.
While the running game continues to be elevated by Ezekiel Elliott, it's only masking a clear problem that the line is facing. Despite Elliott's long runs, the consistency from the offensive line is a concern moving forward. Fortunately, Ohio State will play Maryland before facing Penn State, followed by Rutgers. So there's still time for the Buckeyes to get their offensive line play in order. But for now, it doesn't look promising.
3. The mental mistakes and penalties eventually catch up. Among the many mistakes that were made on Saturday, the most infuriating were the slight miscues and untimely penalties that seemed to hit Ohio State at every turn. From the missed opportunities (a couple of misthrown passes to Michael Thomas and a wide open Jalin Marshall in the endzone) to the unfortunate timing of an illegal block from Braxton Miller that took away an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown. Add in Jalin Marshall's fumble after a solid pitch and catch that nixed the momentum the Buckeyes were building at that point. In all, it just seems Ohio State's focus and consistency is nearly nonexistent at this point in the season. A Cardale Jones interception late in the third quarter lead to Indiana retaking the lead, 17-13.
The good news is that penalties and miscues can be fixed much easier than the issues stated above. Any time you have four turnovers in a game, it's unlikely that the team will win. So while the tight win over Indiana might not help Ohio State fans sleep easier at night, at the end of the day, a win is a win. Going 5-0 just allows the Buckeyes to tighten things up over the coming weeks. The team figuring out how to get back to its dominating ways just seems to be taking longer than what most expected.
It's still unclear about whether or not Ohio State will actually be able to get back to that playing level. The defense, despite facing some injuries in the secondary, still played well enough to keep the Buckeyes aloft. Much like they have all year to this point.