Through five weeks of the season, the Ohio State Buckeyes are the best team in the country.
Despite the mass talent exodus to the NFL on both sides of the ball, the Buckeyes have looked dominant, outscoring opponents 228-37. This despite returning the second least amount of production among fbs teams, and having an early road game against the Oklahoma Sooners.
The Buckeyes are by no means unbeatable, but thus far have looked every bit the part of the dominant team they were expected to be last season. This week, they face their first real challenge in conference play (sorry Rutgers).
Indiana comes to Columbus fresh off a 24-21 overtime victory over Michigan State, possibly the biggest win in the program’s modern history. The Hoosiers once again field a formidable offense capable of generating big plays at will. More importantly, however, has been the emergence of the defense.
For years, Head Coach Kevin Wilson’s offense has had the ability to put points up, but has always been hamstrung by his defense’s inability to keep opposing offenses from doing the same. Now that he has a solid defense, it looks like this might be the most well-rounded team of Wilson’s tenure in Bloomington. So, will Indiana be able to capitalize of their new found defensive prowess and finally beat Ohio State after more than a few close calls?
Probably not, but here are five things to watch for tomorrow anyway:
As of late, the Indiana game has become an exercise in frustration. The Hoosiers have played the Buckeyes extremely tough in three of Meyer’s four seasons in Columbus, including last year’s down-to-the-wire stop by the defense to seal the win. It’s easy to point out the culprit for those close games.
In 2012, 2014, and 2015, the Ohio State defense allowed an average of 34 points, and 426 total yards. Defensive breakdowns have been frequent, as the Hoosiers scored touchdowns of 75 yards or longer in each game. Indiana will likely need to generate similar big plays, as well as force a few key turnovers to be in the same position tomorrow.
This is a matchup that should play out similar to its 29.5 point spread. The Buckeyes are more talented across the board, and are poised to take advantage of Indiana’s weak spots. While the Hoosiers defense is much improved, the offense isn’t quite what it’s been in prior years and hopefully won’t — for the sake of your health, and mine — generate the production it has in previous contests.
On paper, this isn’t a contest. But as we’ve learned in recent games against Indiana, that’s not necessarily how it always plays out.
If you haven’t already, take some time to watch Robert Landers. He leads the team in tackles for loss, recording at least one in three of Ohio State’s four games. Even when he isn’t lighting up the stat sheet, Landers consistently invades opponent’s backfields, blowing up running plays, and making life easier for the linebackers. Most importantly, his stellar play has come at a position of need.
The departures of Adolphus Washington, and Tommy Schutt — along with Tracy Sprinkle’s season ending injury in the opener — left a lot of questions along the interior of the line, and Landers’ play has been a revelation. Despite lacking a consistent pass rush, the Buckeyes still rank 29th in defensive line havoc rate, in large part to the play of the redshirt freshman from Dayton, Ohio.
With injuries along the Indiana line, don’t be surprised if Landers has another productive game.
Sticking with the theme of defensive surprises, how about Indiana’s?
As Matt Brown and I discussed on this week’s podcast, it feels like we have the same discussion about the Hoosiers each season. We know that under Wilson, the offense will likely be good, but ultimately, the defense must be better if they’re to make any strides in the Big Ten. For the first time in his tenure, it actually is.
After never ranking higher than 91st in Defensive S&P+ in Wilson’s first five seasons, they’ve played well (37th) to start the year, albeit against some shaky competition. I mean really, what defense would ever actually allow a team quarterbacked by Tyler O’Connor to come into their stadium and wi- wait a second. You know what? Nevermind.
Meyer even went as far to say this is the best defense the Buckeyes have faced so far this season. If that’s the case, Ohio State has an excellent opportunity to prove that the offense hasn’t just been producing against lackluster defenses.
While I don’t think Indiana’s defensive S&P+ will stay that high as the season progresses, it should be a good tune up for the Buckeye offense before facing Wisconsin’s legitimately nasty defense next week.
Last line of defense
As with a lot of Ohio State games, that offensive success will probably come on the ground. The Buckeyes’ offensive line holds a big advantage over Indiana’s defensive line, and if they’re able to get good push, another big day for Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel is in the cards.
Through four games, the Ohio State offense ranks first in adjusted line yards, first in opportunity rate, third power success rate, and first in stuff rate. This all coming despite three new starters, as well as a freshman running back. Indiana’s profile indicates that more success on the ground is likely on Saturday.
While Indiana ranks 22nd in overall Defensive rushing S&P+, they’re 67th in adjusted line yards, 15th in opportunity rate, 84th in power success rate, and 100th in stuff rate. The only thing they’ve really done well is limit consistent five yard gains, thanks in large part to linebackers Tegray Scales, and Marcus Oliver cleaning up messes for the line. Unfortunately for them, Ohio State has the most consistent running game in the nation.
Weber and Samuel should have enough space to at least consistently make it to the second level of the defense. With that in mind, I think the biggest matchup of the game is between Weber/Samuel and Scales/Oliver. If Ohio State’s dynamic duo is able to make them miss, the Buckeyes’ ground game will continue to roll.
Which leads us to the most important thing to watch for Saturday; When Mike Weber scores, can he and Pat Elflein atone for their horrendous attempt at a pickup celebration during last week’s win over Rutgers?
Please, Pat, at least jump a little when you guys try again this week.