The Ohio State Buckeyes have been gaining momentum - at least through two games this season. Now, after a 42-0 shutout of in-state rival Cincinnati, the Buckeyes are set to begin Big Ten play as they travel to Bloomington to take on the Indiana Hoosiers in the first road game of the season.
Last season, Indiana went 5-7 overall, including 2-7 in conference play. While the Hoosiers were able to fly through their non-conference schedule, they stalled when it came to competing in a tough Big Ten East. This year, under third-year head coach Tom Allen, Indiana looks to break through the proverbial glass ceiling and actually win some conference games over teams not called Rutgers or Maryland.
The Hoosiers started off the season with a 2-0 mark with a 10-point win over Ball State and a much-more-impressive 52-0 success over Eastern Illinois, led by freshman quarterback Michael Penix.
While the Buckeyes’ most recent win over Cincinnati was impressive, beating the spread by a longshot, Ryan Day’s team will have a much tougher time with its first in-conference test of the season.
First, a bit of history…
Ohio State and Indiana have faced off 91 times in program history. The Buckeyes are currently riding a 23-win streak dating back to 1991 -- which is tied for the longest winning streak in series history with the stretch from 1960-1986. (Making things weirder is the fact the two teams tied 27-all in 1990.) However, those wins haven’t always come easy. While the final scores might not reflect it (the Buckeyes won 49-26 last season and 49-21 in 2017), games against Indiana tend to be scarier than the margins would otherwise indicate. For instance, Indiana led in the second quarter of last year’s matchup, and was just nine points down heading into the fourth quarter before Dwayne Haskins and Co. kicked things into high gear to secure the win.
On the road again
Or at least for the first time this season. This weekend marks the Buckeyes’ first road test of 2019. While it’s hard to find a pattern among losses when Ohio State as a program has only lost nine games in the last seven seasons, the most shudder-worthy and cold-sweat-inducing anecdotes of recent years have clearly been road losses to Iowa and Purdue -- two teams over which Ohio State was favored to win. Regardless, the road has generally been a friendly place to the Buckeyes given one of the largest and most willing-to-travel fan bases in the land. In all, of those nine losses, only three came in true road games.
The last time Ohio State traveled to Indiana was to open the 2017 season on a rare Thursday night game. In that instance, Ohio State emerged with a 49-21 victory and Buckeye fans discovered J.K. Dobbins for the first time.
Speaking of Dobbins…
The personnel on the field for Ohio State this season may look a lot different than last year. But Indiana will have to once again tackle how to tackle Ohio State’s favorite running back. In the aforementioned 2017 matchup, Dobbins rushed for 181 yards, breaking Maurice Clarrett’s record for rushing yards in his program debut.
The now-junior running back from La Grange, Texas hasn’t slowed down. He’s already amassed 232 yards on the ground this season on 38 carries, and has punched in three touchdowns. More impressive is how Dobbins was able to bounce back from a slow start in week one, nearly doubling his yards per carry from 4.3 to 8.3. That being said, credit has to go to the Ohio State offensive line which, with so many new players, looked like a much more veteran unit against the Bearcats last week.
As one of the key returners on offense for the Buckeyes, Dobbins was expected to anchor the attack while incoming quarterback Justin Fields gained his footing. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, that wait was short.
Fields of dreams
Quarterback Justin Fields is living up to the hype. After opening his Ohio State career with a near-perfect, four-touchdown performance against Florida Atlantic, he demonstrated a cool head through a thorough dismantling of Cincinnati last weekend, throwing for two more touchdowns. And according to Pro Football Focus, Fields is, through two weeks of play, one of the most accurate passers in college football with an adjusted completion percentage of 90.9.
And Fields running through fields of dreams
How meta, one might say. Fields’ 42 rushing yards might not sound impressive, but he scored two touchdowns on his nine carries against the Bearcats and added another score on the ground versus Florida Atlantic. It makes sense since Fields was recruited to Georgia as a dual-threat quarterback, though Day’s emphasis this season has been on a pro-style, pass-first offense. Even in this system, it’s yet another weapon in the Buckeyes’ arsenal that the offense can call upon.
Tight end to end
While the tight end position has come in and out of vogue at Ohio State over the years, Fields seems to have found a target he likes in tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who leads the team with two touchdowns already this season (though both came in the Buckeyes’ season opener against Florida Atlantic). While it is still early, Fields has already used Ruckert in short-yardage situations, as three of Ruckert’s four catches on the season were for five yards or less.
That being said, Ruckert didn’t play as much of a receiving role against Cincinnati, pulling in zero catches on the day. However, with a new quarterback at the helm, it will be exciting to see how the tight end position continues to be utilized throughout the season.
Everything in balance
Through two games, the Buckeyes have averaged 253.5 yards on the ground and 235 yards passing per game. That balance was similar in both matchups Ohio State has played thus far. While it’s not particularly exciting that Day’s team has put together roughly equivalent passing and rushing attacks, it’s important to note that the offense isn’t relying on a single weapon to gain its yards or score its points -- meaning Indiana will have to spread its defense thinner to shield all possible modes of attack.
The Young and the restless
It was apparent long ago (i.e., back in the spring) that rising junior Chase Young would be the leader on defense for the Buckeyes this season. Young has already recorded three sacks through two games (he has 10.5 last year to lead the team) and is on pace to break Vernon Gholston’s single season sack record of 14 set in 2007. He’ll certainly be a nightmare to guard for the Indiana offensive line.
Linebackers back, alright
The talk this week may have been four-star linebacker Reid Carrico committing to Ohio State, but the current linebacking corps has given observers something to talk about as well. The unit is led by Al Washington, whom Day brought in to replace Bill Davis in the offseason after several years of struggling play at the position.
Certainly one of the top areas of concern for the Buckeyes heading into this season, the linebackers, anchored by Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner, have proven themselves a much improved unit compared to 2018. Harrison has recorded 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the season, while Borland and Werner have gotten in on nine tackles apiece.
Tom Allen, back for more
Through three full seasons (plus the Hoosiers’ bowl game in 2016), head coach Tom Allen is 12-15 over his tenure with Indiana. But like the Hoosiers’ record versus the Buckeyes, don’t take the numbers at face value. Allen, like Chris Ash at Rutgers and Michael Locksley at Maryland, is in the unfortunate position of needing to compete with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State year in and year out. Will the Hoosiers ever go 4-0 among this group? Probably not. Will they have an unexpected win and topple one of these titans on a regular basis? Probably. These statements are not meant to be groundbreaking. Only to serve as a warning not to let your guard down against a team with a competent coach that’s familiar with fierce competition.
Freshman in the driver’s seat
Why all the excitement for a redshirt freshman quarterback? Michael Penix is showing Indiana why. Penix has completed greater than 60 percent of his passes this season for 523 yards and three touchdowns. He took home Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for his performance in the Hoosiers’ win over Ball State in week one, when Penix threw for 326 yards and a touchdown (though notching two picks along the way). In his most recent performance against Eastern Illinois, Penix orchestrated touchdown-scoring drives on the Hoosiers’ first three possessions to put the game away early for Indiana.
Penix saw minimal action last season as he backed up Peyton Ramsey, but now the tables have turned as Ramsey came in late in the second quarter to relieve Penix once the game was well in hand for the Hoosiers (Ramsey would add two touchdowns of his own).
Spreading the love
When one team blows out another by a 52-point margin, it makes sense that a lot of different players are going to get in on the action. In the case of Indiana, five different receivers have scored a touchdown this season. What that ability to spread the ball means for Ohio State is that there are a lot of potential targets to defend in the secondary.
While it is still early and the range of receptions and receiving yards is not significant, it would appear that the emerging favorite target for young Penix is junior wideout Whop Philyor, who leads the team with 10 receptions for 141 yards though, ironically, no touchdowns. Penix also has the advantage of having senior receivers Nick Westbrook and Donovan Hale, who last year accounted for half of Indiana’s touchdowns through the air, back on the field this season.
Justus for all
Senior kicker Logan Justus, who was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list earlier this summer, took home Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors after connecting on a career-high four-of-four field goals and two extra points in the Hoosiers’ opening week win over Eastern Illinois. Moreover, three of those field goals were career longs (yes, consecutively) from 48, 49 and 50 yards. Have recent matchups with Indiana come down to field goals? No. But Justus has been cool under pressure this season and can be accurate when it counts.
A steadily-improving defense
Historically, Indiana hasn’t necessarily been known for its defense so much as committing to tacit track meets (looking at you, Kevin Wilson). However, the Hoosiers’ defensive performance against Eastern Illinois demands some sort of recognition. In all, the Panthers were held to just 112 yards of total offense and five first downs. Altogether Indiana recorded three sacks and eight tackles for loss on the day. And obviously the Hoosiers gave up zero points as they pitched their first shutout since 2017. The performance in week two was also a significant improvement from Indiana’s opener, in which the Hoosiers allowed 398 yards of offense, 26 first downs and actually required the aforementioned kicks under pressure from Justus to put the team ahead for their 32-24 win over Ball State.
Vegas pegs Ohio State as an 18-point favorite over Indiana, which sounds about right for a Big Ten matchup on the road. Of course, looking at what Ohio State was able to do to what was perceived to be a solid Cincinnati squad (and which could still very well be) makes it seem like the Buckeyes have a little more firepower in their arsenal.
Regardless, Ohio State has the blessing and the curse of facing continuously tougher competition in the opening weeks of the season. Indiana is better than its past conference records might indicate, and has the talent to hang around if the Buckeyes allow it to. Further, the first road game of the year will always provide something of a wrench that has potential to throw the Buckeyes off in the game’s opening drives.
Those factors aside, Ohio State looks like the clear winner in this early matchup early in the season. The Buckeyes have already demonstrated that the myriad questions about Fields’ abilities to play in Columbus, Day’s strengths as a coach and the effects of numerous losses from both sides of the ball last year, while valid inquisitions, have proven inconsequential thus far.