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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Indiana game

Can Fields stay perfect? Will OSU’s secondary shut down IU’s potent pair of WRs?

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NCAA Football: Ohio State at Indiana Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

If you can prove to me that before the season you had Ohio State-Indiana as a top-10 matchup, you will have my undying admiration, because even though I expected the Hoosiers to be good, I didn’t expect them to be No. 9 good. But, here we are, folks, as today at 12 noon ET, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0) will host the No. 9 Indiana Hoosiers (4-0) in FOX’s Big Noon game of the week. Due to OSU not playing last weekend because of Maryland’s COVID outbreak, IU is currently in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten East.

While the Buckeyes are 20.5-point favorites coming into the game, the two teams have a lot of similarities. Both have dynamic passing games, while not running the ball all that efficiently. Both secondaries will have to play extremely well to win, and the defensive lines can make a huge difference if they can continue getting pressure.

So, with all of that out of the way, here are the five things that I will be specifically watching for in today’s Ohio State-Indiana game.

1) Justin Fields’ Perfection

Through four games, the Hoosier defense has generated 10 interceptions often leading to short fields. As Bill Landis of The Athletic noted, “[Indiana’s] average starting field position on regulation scoring drives is its own 43.” That makes for a lot of comparatively easy scoring drives.

On the converse, in 15 regular season games as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, Justin Fields has thrown a single interception. That’s one interception — as in the smallest number of interceptions possible without having not yet thrown an interception.

Fields has thrown 360 regular season passes as a Buckeye, and only one has been caught by someone not wearing scarlet and gray. That is an astounding stat, and speaks to Fields’ confidence in his arm and receivers, as well as his ever-improving command of Ryan Day’s offense.

With all due respect to Sean Clifford, Noah Vedral, Joe Milton, and Rocky Lombardi, none of those guys can really even attempt to hold a candle to Fields in terms of throwing the ball... hell, in terms of anything, honestly.

So, the only way that I can even construct a scenario in which IU can hang in against the Buckeyes today is if somehow corner Tiawan Mullen, safety Devon Matthews, and company (including reserve CB Jaylin Williams who has three INTs already this season) are able to buck the trend of Fields’ perfection. It is going to take multiple turnovers for the Hoosiers to hang with the Buckeyes, and they’re going to need an uncharacteristic outing from Fields to make that happen.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that interceptions are not just the product of work done by the secondary, they are often the direct result of the quarterback being under pressure, and no team in the Big Ten through the first month of the season has applied as much pressure as the Hoosiers.

Tom Allen’s defense is leading the B1G with 12 sacks; linebacker Micah McFadden is tied with Mullen for the team lead with three, but he is also one hurry behind grad transfer Jovan Swann’s team leading 11. So, not only will Fields have to contend with IU’s excellent DBs, but he will have to keep aware of their pass rush as well.

If either gets the best of him today, the Hoosiers could make things interesting.

2) Secondary Improvement

Let’s call a spade a spade, the Ohio State secondary has been far from the Best In America (#BIA) through three games this season. Whether it’s working with three to four new starters depending on the scheme, trying to acclimate to Kerry Coombs’ calling the shots, or Shaun Wade still trying to find his footing as an outside corner, things just haven’t felt as steady on the back end of the Buckeye defense as we are used to them feeling.

Today against the Hoosiers, the OSU DBs are going to get their biggest test from a wide receiving group of the regular season. Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor are legit dudes for the IU offense.

Fryfogle has been the surprise of the group, going for four touchdowns on 24 catches and averaging 17.7 yards per completion. Philyor was a known commodity coming into the season, even though his 2020 stats aren’t impressive as Fryfogle’s. He has the same number of catches, but only one score, and is going for an even 12 yards per catch, honestly, still pretty good. But don’t let those numbers full you, both receivers are tied with Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson for third in the conference in catches (though Wilson has done it in one less game, natch).

I am interested to see if the week off due to the canceled Maryland game gave Coombs and the unit enough time to tweak and address both the coverage and tackling issues that the secondary has exhibited. If IU is able to score and gain yards with ease against the Buckeye secondary, it will be a big old red flag in trying to project how they would fare against Alabama and/or Clemson in a College Football Playoff matchup.

3) Wide Receiver Domination

The aforementioned Wilson leads the Big Ten with 114.7 yards per game. Chris Olave is second in the conference with four touchdown receptions, despite having played one less game than leader Penn State’s Jahan Dotson.

The Buckeyes don’t have much of a running attack to speak of this season, so all eyes have been on the other-worldly passing game. We’ve already established that Fields is essentially God’s gift to quarterbacking, and despite the fact that Brian Hartline has assembled an incredibly deep and talented wide receiver room, they’ve really only had to rely on the two top dogs, because they have been just that good. If Wilson and Olave are open, why would you throw to anyone else?

The Hoosiers are only allowing 209.8 yards per game through the air during the first four games this season, which is almost 93 fewer yards than the Buckeyes are throwing for each time out.

I already mentioned that whether or not Tiawan Mullen and Devon Matthews can pick off Justin Fields’ will be important, but their ability (along with the rest of IU’s stout secondary) to cover Wilson, Olave, and crew will be the OSU passing game’s first real test.

If Ohio State’s WRs — as well as tight end Jeremy Ruckert — are able to continue their dominance, there won’t be anyone left on the Buckeyes’ regular season schedule to put up much of a fight, and it would be a good sign for what the postseason could bring.

4) Can the defensive line pressure Penix?

There is little doubt that Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. is the best quarterback that the Buckeyes have faced so far in 2020, and he might be the best that they see in the entire regular season. He has been making plays for the Hoosiers for three seasons, but due to a number of injuries this will be the first time that he takes on Ohio State.

Part of the issue that Penix faces — having had his first two years in Bloomington shortened by injury — is that he still has some fundamental flaws that he hasn’t yet worked through. The most notable is the fact that he will often deliver balls while falling away, rather than stepping into his throws.

Because he has an absolute hose for an arm, Penix can often get away with this, but if a defense gets enough pressure on him, he can be forced into some bad decisions, as evidenced by his first drive against Michigan State this past Saturday.

According to Pro Football Focus’ analysis, Ohio State grades out as the best pass rush in the B1G, with Haskell Garrett and Jonathon Cooper leading the way. If the OSU defense can put Penix in uncomfortable situations, and force him to make throws without setting his feet, they should be able to at least partially counter IU’s passing attack.

PFF also has graded IU’s pas blocking as the worst in the B1G, and it’s not even close. By comparison, OSU’s pass blocking grade (which is fifth in the league) is 37 points higher than the Hoosiers.

As I said with OSU on offense, a good pass rush can make the job for defensive backs look pretty easy. With receivers like Fryfogle and Philyor, the front seven getting pressure on Penix should make a big difference for Wade, Sevyn Banks, Marcus Hooker, and company.

5) Will the canceled game increase OSU’s intensity?

Ohio State has won its first three games of the season by a combined nice score of 139 to 69, but, their first half total for the season is an overwhelming 80 to 23. For those of you that aren’t math geniuses like I am (I’m lying I had to pull out my phone to figure this out), their second half score has been just 59 to 46.

Normally, I would attribute nearly all of that to garbage time — and some of that is still true here — but this year, the Buckeye starters have played much deeper into games than they did last season. Now, Day has absolutely pulled back on the reins in the second half of games this season, but it’s also felt like the intensity and focus that the Buckeyes employ to blow teams out in the first half, for some reason, disappears after halftime.

However, having lost a game from their schedule, Ohio State can no longer afford not to play peerless football. While I can’t imagine a scenario in which an undefeated OSU doesn’t get into the playoff, stranger things have happened, and seeding might very well end up being important. I’d much rather only play Clemson or Alabama as opposed to Clemson and Alabama

But more important than any postseason ramifications on the field is the fact that these subpar second halves are absolutely driving me OSU fans crazy. Between an apparent let up from the players and a purposeful slow down from coaches, you can’t help but feel like the Buckeyes are leaving both literal, scoreboard points and figurative, style points on the field.

Hopefully they won’t need extra of either this season, but if they don’t stop slacking off in the second half, I’m going to be nervous from now until mid-January.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!