I’m going to be honest, the Indiana Hoosiers are impossible to figure out at this stage of the season. I don’t mean that in the sense that Ohio State is going to struggle with game-planning and execution against them this Saturday; rather, I mean to say that Indiana hasn’t played a down of relevant football yet this year.
This tweet from a Pro Football Focus analyst should somewhat illustrate my point:
The two highest-graded QBs in the Big Ten (@PFF):— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) September 11, 2019
Justin Fields (@OhioStateFB) - 90.3 (7th in CFB)
Michael Penix Jr. (@IndianaFootball) - 87.6 (10th in CFB)
Both have been dropping dimes through two weeks of play. This is going to be a fun matchup on Saturday. pic.twitter.com/GF1LuDSNnj
That top 10 grade nationally for Michael Penix Jr. doesn’t quite shine as bright when considering Indiana’s two games so far this season have been against Ball State — a team that finished third-to-last in total yards allowed per game in the MAC last season — and Eastern Illinois — an FCS team. The Hoosiers barely managed to take down their in-state pseudo-rivals on a not-so-neutral field in Indianapolis, and then proceeded to beat the snot out of an opponent that lost to Chattanooga the week prior.
However, there are two key insights that I think Ohio State fans should be well aware of heading into this game, one for each side of the ball:
Buckeye Offense vs. Hoosier Defense
Buckeye fans may recall that Ohio State kicked off the 2017 College Football season under the lights in Bloomington against the Indiana Hoosiers. That game marked the true freshman debut of J.K. Dobbins in wake of a Mike Weber injury, and with the spotlight immediately on him, Dobbins delivered in a big way.
Though he failed to find the endzone, Dobbins gashed the Hoosier defense all night to the tune of 181 yards on an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Dobbins broke Maurice Clarett’s Ohio State debut rushing record of 175 yards on a nationally televised stage merely a year removed from missing all but one snap of his final season in high school.
I am convinced that one of the reasons Dobbins did so well that game was because he didn’t have much competition for carries other than J.T. Barrett, given Weber’s injury. Dobbins had plenty of time to get into rhythm and find the right spots to make cuts, and his surprisingly physical running style wore Indiana down over the course of the second half.
Last year, Dobbins notably slumped over much of the season as he participated in a backfield timeshare with Weber. Dobbins managed only 82 yards on 26 carries a year ago against Indiana, while Weber went for just twelve yards less than Dobbins’ total on half as many attempts. That game served as an example of how Ohio State’s change-of-pace approach at running back seemed to help Weber more, as Dobbins failed to achieve a higher yards-per-carry average in nine of Ohio State’s 13 games last season that featured both players. Of course, it’s also necessary to note both backs were playing alongside a much less mobile quarterback than they had become accustomed to in previous seasons.
With Weber now down in Dallas alongside Ezekiel Elliott, Dobbins has taken a firm hold of Ohio State’s starting running back job this season. The Ohio State rushing attack looked better last week than it has in a long time against a substantial defense, and Dobbins’ 141 yard performance in the first half was so solid that he didn’t even need to take a snap for the final 30 minutes of the game.
Dobbins is well-experienced in IU Memorial Stadium, well-prepared for his role, and well-rested in the wake of last week’s game. I’m expecting Dobbins to put on a massive encore in his return to Bloomington, particularly against an Indiana rushing defense that has yet to face anything close to a true test in 2019.
Hoosier Offense vs. Buckeye Defense
Continuing with the theme that the Hoosiers have yet to face a team that can stress them out a bit, consider this: there are currently only three Big Ten quarterbacks that have completed ten or more passes this season without taking any sacks.
One of them is Penn State backup Will Levis. The other two are Michael Penix Jr. and Peyton Ramsey of the Indiana Hoosiers.
MAC and FCS teams simply cannot bring the heat the way a Power 5 team does, and that lack of recent playing experience against a quality pass rush is going to hit the Hoosiers hard on Saturday when Chase Young and the rest of the defensive line roll into town. With great pressure comes great mistakes, and while Penix Jr. has left no doubt about his talent through two games, he’s still prone to errors as any other redshirt freshman in a starring role. To that point, Penix Jr. tossed two interceptions to only one touchdown in his relatively unpressured game against Ball State in the opener.
Indiana’s starting quarterbacks have thrown for 732 passing yards in their previous two meetings with Ohio State. Between a new zone scheme and a front that has to be licking their chops, it will be interesting to see if Indiana can still throw all over Ohio State’s defense for the third year in a row.
The Bottom Line
Indiana checks in at 40th overall on Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings this week, which is four spots behind where Cincinnati was last week before the Buckeyes shipped them back to Kentucky in a styrofoam icebox. Personally, I don’t buy that Indiana is just two spots behind Maryland in terms of projected efficiency against their opponents this season. Penix Jr. is a guy that will likely strike fear in the hearts of many Big Ten fans one day, but I still think he needs about a year of experience before he and his team make a leap towards hanging with the top half of the B1G East.
With Indiana apparently keying on Justin Fields, I expect Dobbins to run roughshod over an untested Hoosier defense. If Indiana’s offense is unable to replicate their prolific throwing success against the Buckeyes from seasons prior, they’re going to have a lot of trouble staying in this game. Given none of their quarterbacks have been sacked yet this season, it’s highly unlikely they will be able to play the mistake-free offense they’ll need to pull off an upset. While I expect an entertaining game, look for Ohio State to open their conference play with a resounding victory.