It’s entirely possible that the Indiana Hoosiers don’t get nearly enough shine, at least when it comes to the discussion of the most entertaining teams in college football. Big Ten fans know that past versions of this team have certainly belonged in the conversation. For proof, look no further than the last two contests between the Hoosiers and the Buckeyes, featuring a 228-yard, three TD performance from Tevin Coleman in 2014 and Zander Diamont’s infamous 79-yard scamper for six in 2015. Both games featured a dynamic, albeit incomplete Indiana team butting up against a top-10 Ohio State squad; both games looked like serious upset bids until Urban Meyer managed to slam the door shut.
Kevin Wilson’s team looks like it has that potential again in 2016. The Hoosiers knocked off perennial powerhouse Michigan State last week on the back of a gadget play that saw a quarterback catch a touchdown pass, among other craziness. Hell, even when Indiana loses, they’re entertaining. Their loss to Wake Forest kept the bid for an undefeated Demon Deacons season alive for one more glorious week, and had various SB Nation pundits wondering if we were going to have to start talking to our kids about 12-0 playoff-bound Wake Forest. (Mercifully, or perhaps tragically, the Deacons dropped a game last week.)
There’s a lot to like about 2016 Indiana. Hoosier quarterback Richard Lagow is probably a more polished signal-caller than Diamont was, and what he lacks in soap opera pedigree he more than makes up for in athleticism. The advanced stats don’t love the Hoosiers, but they at least have a little crush, as far as the offense goes. They’ve got three different wide receivers who can hurt the other team. The list goes on.
If you’re reading this, you probably already know a good deal about the havoc that Ohio State has wreaked on college football this season, so instead of waxing poetic for a few more inches of column, let’s dive right into the matchup and see where each team has the edge.
Ohio State advantages
Exploiting the mismatch. As good as the Indiana passing attack has been, the running game has been pretty vanilla for the Hoosiers. That’s bad news for them, because their numbers almost certainly aren’t going to improve against a Buckeye team that ranks seventh nationally in run defense S&P+. The Buckeyes don’t allow many explosive plays on the ground, and the defense under Luke Fickell and Greg Schiano is fast enough and flexible enough to stay with backs trying to run outside the tackles.
Ohio State defensive tackles Robert Landers and Michael Hill have proven themselves stout enough to make any team think twice about going to ground too often. Raekwon McMillan has been, unsurprisingly, an efficient tackling machine; his fellow linebacker Chris Worley showed off his lateral speed and football IQ play after play in the Oklahoma game, resulting in speed demon Semaje Perine being stifled to a degree he’s rarely experienced as a football player. The Hoosiers aren’t going to find any breathing room on the ground against the Buckeyes. Which leads us to...
A Gandalf-inspired secondary. The young and inexperienced Buckeye defensive backs have come out with a pretty clear message to opposing offenses in 2016: You Shall Not Pass. Through four games, the secondary has recorded eight interceptions against just two passing TDs allowed.
There’s a combination of factors at play here. The most basic of these is sheer talent: Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, and Damon Webb have all come into their own as Buckeyes, forming the core of a pass defense that’s looked ready to take on the world all season. Given that Conley and Hooker were 3-star recruits coming out of high school, this elite performance has been no mean feat on the part of Greg Schiano, Kerry Coombs, and the rest of the defensive staff.
The other thing that gives the Buckeyes such an edge whenever the opponent takes to the air is the press-quarters scheme that they run. Press-quarters gives them the flexibility to create a numbers mismatch regardless of the play call, and they’ve run it with devastating effectiveness. For proof, look no further than the following stat: Ohio State’s defense, through four games, has scored more points than it’s allowed. 18 of the 24 points racked up by the Buckeye defense have come courtesy of interception returns by the secondary. (The other six were on a pick by LB Jerome Baker.)
Indiana’s passing game has more of a pulse than any previous Ohio State opponent, including Oklahoma, but they’ll have little room for error against the Buckeyes.
Top-to-bottom execution. By S&P+, the metric that gauges how well a team performs in five major statistical categories against the average, the Buckeyes are the No. 1 team in the country. They rank in the top 10 nationally in offensive S&P+ (10th), defensive S&P+ (6th), and special teams S&P+ (3rd). Only one other team, Texas A&M, even cracks the top 25 in all three categories.
The offense is explosive, efficient, and multi-faceted. The defense is unrelenting, seemingly immune to big plays, and gets off the field quickly. The special teams unit has consistently created a massive field position discrepancy in favor of Ohio State.
Indiana ranks 48th, 37th, and 78th, respectively, in these same categories. The Hoosiers do plenty of things well, but they don’t do them as well or as consistently as the Buckeyes do.
Gunslinger. Indiana’s quarterback, Richard Lagow, isn’t afraid to take his shots downfield. The 6’6, 240-lb. JUCO transfer has an arm, and though the results have been mixed when the Hoosiers have aired it out this season, Lagow has made some really nice throws in important spots. His deep ball is an enviable one.
Lagow averages 319.5 passing yards per game. This high-volume approach has led to the occasional misfire—he was picked off five times against Wake Forest in the Hoosiers’ only loss of 2016—but it’s also gotten his team to a 3-1 record that includes a win over Michigan State. Malik Hooker and his teammates in the secondary will need to be in top form against a QB who’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and take a lick if it means hitting the right receiver.
Stopping the run. Indiana might be 37th in total defensive S&P+, but they come in at 22nd against the run. The Hoosiers’ ability to limit opposing rushers has been an overlooked component of the team’s success so far in 2016, and the Buckeyes might not find nearly as much running room as they’re used to against this solid defensive front.
Our own Chad Peltier dove more deeply into this issue here, but the major takeaway is this: this will be a much stiffer test than the likes of Rutgers, Tulsa, or Bowling Green offered the dynamic Buckeye rushing attack. Ohio State’s ground game has been lethal and efficient, lacking in long plays but with a high overall average per carry. Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber, Demario McCall, and J.T. Barrett all have the ability to take defenses apart, but the Hoosier defense seems well-designed to contain their efforts and force the Buckeyes to pass more than they’ve needed to.
F/+ Prediction: Ohio State 44.8, Indiana 19.2
Win Probability: Ohio State 93%
Despite all the things the Hoosiers have done well in 2016, the advanced stats like the Buckeyes to roll in this one by roughly 26 points. There’s too much talent top-to-bottom on Urban Meyer’s roster to think that Indiana will be able to keep pace with them on the scoreboard, especially given what the Buckeyes have accomplished on defense this season.
The last two years have seen Kevin Wilson’s team keep Ohio State fans biting their nails for a good chunk of the game. A few big-time throws from Richard Lagow could keep this one close for longer than we’d like to see, but this one should be well in hand by the start of the final quarter.
Expect to feel something like this when the scoreboard hits 0:00.