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Ohio State offense must break through against Indiana linebacker Reakwon Jones

If Fields and Dobbins get past the LBs, adios to a close game.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Up against the clock, the Indiana Hoosiers are still debating on who will be under center on Saturday afternoon against the Ohio State Buckeyes. If Michael Penix Jr. is healthy, then he’ll most likely will be the guy sprinting out onto the field at the start of the game. If not, then Peyton Ramsey will be back in the saddle, facing the Buckeyes for the second year in a row — but this time around at home.

The IU offense will have their own issues against the Buckeye frontline, specifically Chase Young. The IU defense is in the same boat: they are up against an Ohio State offense loaded with talent.

Knowing that, the question is, who will be the glue for the home team Hoosiers? Look no further than senior linebacker Reakwon Jones. In his fifth year, the Lyn Haven, Fla., native has been a leader for the IU program. And if the program is looking to win its first game against Ohio State since 1988, then they’ll need him to play the game of his career.

Already this season, Jones has a team-leading 15 tackles, getting 11 of them against Ball State in Week 1. Now in his second year as a starting LB, he gets another crack at the Bucks. Last season in Ohio Stadium, Jones had a seven-tackle affair — including one tackle for loss. However, he couldn’t make enough tackles to stop OSU points from being added to the scoreboard.

While the likes of Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon have moved on from OSU, the visiting team from Columbus still packs a mighty punch on offense.

It’ll be a big challenge for Jones, especially if the underclassmen around him don’t perform at an elite level. Justin Fields has proven to be both a passing and rushing threat, and has torched two weeks’ worth of defenses. The double-option against Florida Atlantic in Week 1 led to the season’s first touchdown, a 51-yard sprint.

Against Cincinnati, a 20-of-25 day through the air flashed the QB’s precision and accuracy. Fields is still developing and learning, which means that he’ll come into this game on Saturday more refined than last week. In the Jones-versus-Fields clash, the LB will have his work cut out for him in two ways.

One, if Fields decides to take off out of the pocket, Jones will have to be one of the defenders on the move to tackle Fields. Considering that Fields is a fast guy with some agility, bringing the Georgia transfer down is easier said than done.

Second, Fields isn’t making the mistakes that you would think that a “rookie” QB would be making. He’s not forcing throws, he’s not trying to play hero on drives; he’s playing smart football. If tight end Jeremy Ruckert is crossing in front of Jones, or if Jones is playing pass prevention in the middle of the field, Fields isn’t going to force throws. Jones will have to play defense, and if Fields decides that he’s booking it, then Jones will have to double back to the line of scrimmage. Being a dual-threat QB has its perks, which becomes an absolute terrible fringe benefit if you’re a linebacker facing a team with both a rushing and receiving game.

That leads to the next point: there’s more than one quality rushing option. J.K. Dobbins is coming back to the place where he played his first collegiate game. On a Thursday night in 2017, Memorial Stadium witnessed the then-freshman torch the Hoosier defense for 181 yards en route to a 49-21 Buckeye victory.

Dobbins is just as quick now as he was then, and Jones will be tasked with stopping Dobbins should he be coming up the middle. The La Grange, Texas rusher is a shifty, speedy and an all-around menace for a tackler.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State
Redemption?: Jones came close to stopping an OSU touchdown in 2018. Will he be able to stop the Buckeye runners and receivers in Bloomington?
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If Jones has trouble choosing correctly on read options, then the Buckeye rush game is going to have big business. Throw in Master Teague, this year’s rushing equivalent of a mack truck, and now you have a ground-and-pound unit on the OSU offense that will slowly (but surely) erode an opposing defense over 60 minutes.

Chunk plays will be what decides whether or not the Hoosiers even have a chance to stay in this game late. Fields seems to always hit the open receiver, and guys like K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor and Chris Olave have broken free from their defensive backs at times this season. If any of those WRs get the ball in front of Jones, it’s paramount — at least for the Hoosiers’ hope for a win — that he applies a tackle. This Buckeye offense starts off fast, and once they get going, good luck trying to stop them.

It’s hard figuring out who has to be the key defensive player for a team going up against Ohio State. One guy can’t defeat the Bucks; the whole team — or at a minimum, one unit — has to play out of its collective mind to have a whiff at winning against the Scarlet and Gray.

Jones is the one guy to keep an eye on, but if the rest of the defense doesn’t do its part in stopping the Mike Yurcich game plan, then the Bucks will score at will.