After ending last season with a 31-0 defeat at the hands of Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State Buckeyes feel they have some unfinished business to take on in 2017. With a large core of returning starters, Ohio State is a popular pick to make it back to the College Football Playoff. It also doesn’t hurt that the Buckeyes have a little history on their side, as the previous two times that Urban Meyer teams have lost their bowl games, they have regrouped the next season to win a national title.
Ohio State’s 2017 season will get underway with a trip to Bloomington to take on the Indiana Hoosiers. As if opening on the road wasn’t rare enough for Ohio State, even less common for the Buckeyes is opening on the road against a conference foe. Thursday night’s game marks the first time since 1975 where Ohio State has started the year with a conference road game.
The Buckeyes have made Bloomington a home away from home over the last three decades, last losing to Indiana in Bloomington in 1988. Over the last three trips to Bloomington, Ohio State is averaging 39.6 points per game, scoring at least 33 points in all three of those games. Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State is almost automatic in true road games, winning 22 of their 23 true road games, with the only loss coming last year to Penn State.
Indiana comes into this season trying to build on their best stretch of football in recent history. The Hoosiers have made bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1990-91. With nine starters returning on defense, and seven starters returning on offense, Indiana has their sights on earning their first bowl win since 1991. Last year the Hoosiers came close, falling 26-24 to Utah in the Foster Farms Bowl, which was head coach Tom Allen’s first game in charge.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
A familiar foe. New Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson will have an early chance for some revenge against the school that parted ways with him in December. In six years as head coach of the Hoosiers, Wilson put together a 26-47 record. While the numbers might not look all that impressive, Wilson had the Hoosiers trending upward. After posting just one win in his first year in Bloomington, Indiana won at least four games in each of the next five seasons.
Having Wilson on staff will give Urban Meyer a leg up in preparation for the Hoosiers with Wilson’s familiarity with not only new Indiana head coach Tom Allen, but also with the players on the Indiana roster. It isn’t like Meyer needs any more advantages heading into the season opener, as Meyer has not only won all 15 of his previous season openers as head coach, but he is also 45-4 in his head coaching career with more than a week to prepare for an opponent.
Also in Wilson’s favor is having fifth-year senior J.T. Barrett as his field general. Barrett is just six touchdowns away from tying Drew Brees’ Big Ten record of 106 total touchdowns responsible for. Even with a lack of consistency at wide receiver last year, Barrett was still able to throw for 24 touchdowns, and add another nine rushing scores. If Barrett is able to revert to his play in 2014 when Ohio State pushed the tempo on offense, as well as get increased production from the young crop of wide receivers the Buckeyes have, the quarterback will likely find himself in the middle of the Heisman Trophy race.
The rushmen return. With just six starters returning last year, Ohio State could’ve suffered a down year. Instead, many young players took advantage of their opportunities, and the Buckeyes made it to the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons. Now with many of those key players from last year returning, anything other than a College Football Playoff appearance for Ohio State this year will be considered a failure.
Last year’s season was saved on numerous occasions by the defense. This year even more is expected of the defense, especially with the playmaking ability the defensive line possesses. The amount of talent Urban Meyer has amassed at defensive end is impressive. Not only do the Buckeyes have reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis returning, but on the opposite side Sam Hubbard is garnering a lot of attention from NFL scouts. After tearing his ACL in his senior year of high school, Nick Bosa was still able to rack up five sacks as a true freshman. Another player to keep an eye on is Jayln Holmes, who registered 8.5 tackles for loss last year.
Indiana does have four offensive linemen with starting experience returning, but they lost stellar offensive guard Dan Feeney, who was drafted in the third round of April’s NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers. Even with the returning experience, the Hoosiers will have a tall task in slowing down a deep Ohio State defensive line, that has been energized by a more aggressive scheme from defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.
Take it to the ground. Ohio State’s passing attack may have left plenty to be desired last year, but the same can’t be said about the rushing attack. Since 2013, Ohio State ranks fourth among Power 5 teams with 251.6 rushing yards per game That trend is likely to continue, especially with the Buckeyes returning four starters on the offensive line.
As a redshirt freshman, Mike Weber had the daunting task of trying to step into Ezekiel Elliott’s shoes at running back. Weber more than held his own, becoming just the third freshman in Ohio State history to surpass 1,000 yards rushing, finishing the year with 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. Even more will be expected from Weber this year, but he’ll have some help to try and shoulder the load.
Even though Ohio State won’t have Curtis Samuel at their disposal, they’ll have a dynamic trio that will help to replace Samuel’s production. Parris Campbell will step into Samuel’s H-back slot, with his speed and agility leaving many thinking Campbell could be in for a breakout season. Along with Campbell, Demario McCall is expected to see some reps at H-back as well, after rushing for 270 yards and three touchdowns in mop-up duty last year. The wildcard of the group could be freshman J.K. Dobbins, who is already earning rave reviews from the coaching staff, and has been slotted second on the depth chart at running back behind Weber. At times Ohio State will also likely rely on J.T. Barrett’s ability to get tough yards when needed as well during the season.
Indiana’s biggest advantages
The defense could tip the scales. Tom Allen was hired by Indiana from South Florida as defensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, and what a year it was for Allen. Not only did Allen help engineer an incredible turnaround for the Indiana defense, but by the end of the year he was elevated to head coach after the Hoosiers parted ways with Kevin Wilson. It’s easy to see why the Hoosiers are high on Allen after the job he did in his first year in Bloomington. Not only did the Indiana defense allow 23 fewer touchdowns in 2016 than it did in 2015, but they also allowed 129.4 less yards per game than they did in 2015, which was the best turnaround in the country.
The leader of the defense is undoubtedly linebacker Tegray Scales, who was named a second team All-American by Sports Illustrated in 2016, marking the first time since 1987 that an Indiana linebacker received All-American honors. The Cincinnati native registered a Big Ten-high 126 tackles last year, with 23.5 of those coming behind the line of scrimmage.
In the secondary, Rashard Fant is putting together one of the best careers by a cornerback in Indiana school history. Fant is the NCAA’s active leader with 48 passes defended and 44 passes broken up in just 38 games. Fant isn’t the only playmaker in the secondary, as safety Jonathan Crawford recovered four fumbles and intercepted three passes last year. The duo, along with a couple other experienced defensive backs could provide problems for an Ohio State passing attack that is looking to get back on track after a disappointing 2016 campaign.
A welcome return. Ohio State’s defensive line should be able to put pressure on quarterbacks throughout the year, but they may have some trouble to start out the season on Thursday night. Fifth-year senior Richard Lagow threw for 3,362 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first year as starter last year, and the 6-6 quarterback will be looking for more this year. Lagow will have to be a little more careful with his decision making this year though, as he was intercepted 17 times in 2016.
Lagow’s numbers last year are even more impressive considering he lost wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. to a broken ankle on Indiana’s first play from scrimmage. In 2015, Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1,035 yards and four touchdowns, so Lagow will definitely welcome the talented wide receiver back. There is a question on when Cobbs will actually return to the field though, as Indiana hasn’t announced if there will be any punishment for Cobbs being arrested at a Jason Aldean concert last month. Last year Nick Westbrook stepped up once Cobbs was injured, hauling in 54 passes for 995 yards and six touchdowns.
While Lagow will have more weapons at wide receiver this year, there are questions about what Indiana will do at running back this year. The Hoosiers will be looking for someone to continue the recent string of success Indiana has had with their running backs. Indiana is just one of five FBS schools to have four 1,000 yard rushers over the last three seasons. New running backs coach Mike Hart has some depth to work with at least, with six running backs on the roster with game experience. Mike Majette is Indiana’s leading returning rusher with 361 career rushing yards.
First time for everything. Unlike most years when the crowd in Bloomington has had a heavy Ohio State presence, this year could be a little different atmosphere at Memorial Stadium. Not only is ESPN heading to Bloomington for College GameDay for the first time ever, but the Worldwide Leader is rolling out their megacast for the season opener, something that is usually reserved for the national title game. Along with all the pregame hoopla, the Hoosiers will be honoring former head coach Lee Corso at the end of the first quarter.
The atmosphere likely won’t rattle Ohio State, but it could possibly give the Hoosiers some extra pep in their step. While Ohio State hasn’t lost in Bloomington since 1988, Indiana has made the Buckeyes work for their wins lately. Not only did the Hoosiers take Ohio State to the limit in a 52-49 thriller in 2012, but Indiana also had Ohio State on the ropes in 2015. Had it not been for an injury to running back Jordan Howard, as well as a couple long Ezekiel Elliott second half touchdown runs, the Hoosiers just might have pulled the upset on the Buckeyes.
Indiana has to feel like if they are going to spring an upset on the Buckeyes, this would be the year to do so. The improvement of the defense, along with the change in culture under new head coach Tom Allen has the Hoosiers with more confidence than ever. A win over the Buckeyes would not only shock the college football world, but it could set Indiana up for one of their best seasons in school history.
How to watch, stream, listen to Ohio State vs. Indiana:
Game time: Thursday August 31st, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
Know your enemy: The Crimson Quarry