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Ohio State’s season opener is almost here: Now what?

First victim: Indiana University

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, the first Saturday Thursday of Buckeye football is back. The expectations for this season’s squad couldn’t be higher, as Ohio State made the playoffs in 2016 despite having Phil Steele’s most-inexperienced team in the country. Experience won’t be an issue this time around for either side of the ball: The Buckeyes return 14 of 22 starters and are replacing NFL-caliber players with NFL-caliber talent.

Week 1 pits the Buckeyes against Indiana. Some have cried out “trap game” due to Ohio State’s upcoming date with the Sooners in Week 2, but there are several good reasons to think the Buckeyes won’t come out flat. Here are three:

  • Consider how the Buckeyes’ season ended last season. The endless jabs from opposing fan bases ranged from funny to very strange. Now, consider how this made Urban Meyer feel, who said following the loss that “Ohio State is not used to this. I'm not used to this, and we will not get used to this. That's not going to happen again. So we'll get things worked out.” Now is literally Meyer’s first chance to show the world how he’s worked out the most embarrassing loss of his entire career.
  • Meyer doesn’t “do” season-opening losses. He’s 16-0 during Week 1, often via knockout. Sure, Meyer and company have run over plenty of cupcakes that had no business sharing the field with his lot of blue-chip recruits, and it’s fair to say Indiana — fresh off back-to-back six win seasons — is feeling good about themselves. College gameday will be in Bloomington and the stadium will be rocking. There’s just one problem...
  • Other than arguably Tom Allen, the current head coach and previous defensive coordinator at Indiana, Ohio State literally has the single-most knowledgeable person on the planet when it comes to the 2017 Indiana football team: new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Indiana hasn’t beat Ohio State since 1991, but they’ve at least managed to keep it close recently thanks to Wilson’s lethal offenses that have featured the likes of Tevin Coleman and Jordan Howard. Wilson coached at Indiana from 2011-2016, meaning he’s personally recruited every player on the current Hoosiers roster. He also probably knows a thing or two about exploiting his former defensive coordinator’s scheme.

The Buckeyes would be a lofty favorite in this game whether they had Wilson or not considering Ohio State hasn’t been favored by less than 19.5 points against Indiana during the Meyer era. Adding in the Hoosiers’ former head coach, who undoubtedly has at least a small amount of revenge on his mind after being forced to resign, doesn’t seem fair.

With that said, Allen and Indiana of course know a little something about Wilson’s offensive schemes, and anything can happen in a 60-minute game. There’s also reason to believe that new Hoosiers offensive coordinator Mike DeBord’s could provide some issues for an inexperienced Ohio State secondary. Here are three key questions to look out for in Thursday night’s game.

Can Ohio State dominate the kicking game again?

Last season Ohio State ranked 12th and 33rd in average field position and opponent field possession. Indiana ranked 93rd and 56th. Meaning: Ohio State did a significantly better job at forcing their opponents to put together longer drives while consistently shortening the field for J.T. Barrett and company. The kick-off piranhas, Cam Johnston-led punt team, and opportunistic defense all helped this stat, but it was Parris Campbell and the kick return team that blew up during these two team’s meeting last season:

Ohio State was staring at an underwhelming seven-point lead going into the half, but Campbell’s 91-yard kick return immediately led to a J.T. Barrett touchdown and 14-point lead. Campbell gained 149 total yards on his four kick returns, while it took Indiana five returns to gain same 91 yards that we saw in the above clip.

As an anonymous rival coach of the Buckeyes revealed in Sports Illustrated’s excellent college football preview, “The third phase (of the Buckeyes’ success) is their secret sauce—they play really hard in the kicking game. I don’t think they get enough credit for that.” Ohio State has plenty of talent advantages on both sides of the ball; their offensive line is literally bigger than the Cleveland Browns. Still, one of Meyer’s calling cards is his “9 Unit Strong” approach, and this helps turn wins into blowouts.

Can Richard Lagow limit his mistakes?

Lagow, the former JUCO and now returning starting quarterback, largely played great against the Buckeyes. Sure, he only completed 14 of his 28 passes for 182 yards, but he led back-to-back scoring drives to close the second quarter and then open the second half that kept Indiana in the ball game. Still, a fumble caused by brutal backside awareness, along with an interception thrown into coverage, gave the Buckeyes two immediate possessions inside the Hoosiers’ 10-yard line:

Lagow flashed some nice arm talent last season, and threw for over 275 yards on five separate occasions, but he also threw 17 picks across 13 starts. Ohio State’s long and talented corners make open windows downfield hard to come by, and Lagow can’t afford to give the Buckeyes any easy turnovers again and expect to come away with a win.

Can the Hoosiers find any resemblance of a consistent run game?

During Ohio State’s 2014 scare against Indiana, in which the Hoosiers took a 20-14 lead during the third quarter, Tevin Coleman scored three rushing touchdowns and the Hoosiers racked up 281 rushing yards on 36 carries. Indiana has rushed for a combined 275 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 95 carries during their last two matchups against the Buckeyes.

Unfortunately for Indiana, Zander Diamont, the backup quarterback who rushed for 140 yards on just 13 carries against the Buckeyes in 2014-2015, has retired, and 6’0” 260 pound Tyler Natee (61 carries, 237 yards, 3.9 YPC, 2 TDs) is the team’s leading returning rusher. Meanwhile Ohio State returns all four, and essentially six, starters on a defensive line that defensive coordinator Greg Schiano calls “the most talented he’s ever had”.

Indiana has managed to pop off touchdown runs of 90, 52, and 79 yards against the Buckeyes over the past three seasons. Those runs were highlight-worthy and made by talented players. Still, Indiana has averaged just 2.59 yards per carry on the other 129 rushes against the Buckeyes. The Hoosiers need to find a ground game, because third-and-longs against a defensive line so talented it can’t even find a full-time starting spot for Nick Bosa are a recipe for disaster.

Indiana’s team identity has switched from high-scoring offense with a mediocre defense, to a strong defense with a questionable offense. While it’s been awhile since we’ve seen a massive performance from Barrett and the Buckeyes’ offense, the team retains the same typical scary and ball-hawking defensive and special teams units. We’ll find out Thursday if Ohio State is ready to put last season’s offensive woes behind them, or if the Hoosiers’ Ewing Theory potential is more than just a pipe dream.