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Ohio State vs. Indiana: 2021 game preview and prediction

Back in the saddle again. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 16 Michigan State at Indiana Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-1) are rested and refreshed from a bye week as they prepare, as 21-point favorites, to take on the 2-4 Indiana Hoosiers Saturday night in Bloomington.

Things seem to be full steam ahead for Ohio State, with the Buckeyes winning their last three games by an average of 47 points. Led by a full stable of the best skill position talent in the nation, anchored by a quarterback who has grown into his role before our very eyes and supported by a defense that’s locked things down in recent weeks, the Buckeyes don’t just look like the Buckeyes of yore — they look better.

Yes, much to the chagrin of Big Ten fans of schools not named Ohio State, the Buckeyes are firmly back in the conversation as THE team to talk about in the Big Ten. Sorry, Iowa, you had your shot.

But the Buckeyes have to bring this better ball to bear for the remainder of their regular season schedule, which is no cake walk. And they’re starting with a Hoosiers squad, under the lights on a Saturday night, that looks a heckuva lot better than their 2-4 record and that’s looking for retribution after a 2020 game that slipped through their fingers.

Series history

The Buckeyes have generally owned their series against Indiana, accruing a 76-12-5 record. Moreover, Ohio State has won the last 25 matchups (the longest win streak in series history), dating back to 1988, and having played every year since 2009. Ohio State fans have generally fond memories against Indiana, like that time JK Dobbins, as a true freshman running back, ran all over the Hoosiers in the Buckeyes’ Thursday night season opener. For the most part, these games haven’t been close. Even as recently as 2019, Ohio State blew Indiana out of the water with a 59-10 final result. Again, though, the “for the most part” is key.

Looking for revenge

Ohio State beat Indiana by just a touchdown in 2015. In 2012, his first year as head coach, Urban Meyer narrowly escaped the Hoosiers 52-49. And then there was last year, the memory of which certainly hurts Indiana more than it hurts the Buckeyes.

While it was certainly not realistic to picture Indiana in the 2020 College Football Playoff as the representative of the Big Ten Conference, the Hoosiers certainly think they deserved a shot, and definitely felt the snub of being left out of the Big Ten Championship game when a last-minute rule change put Ohio State in as champions of the East.

Of course, these Hoosiers would be remiss if they forgot the fact Ohio State beat Indiana head-to-head last November, with Justin Fields and Company coming out on top in a 42-35 nailbiter.

It wasn’t supposed to be a nailbiter, though. Ohio State was up 28-7 heading into halftime, and 35-7 early in the third quarter. We were all heading back from extra helpings of tacos and guac when Indiana decided to make things a little more interesting — right up until the fourth quarter.

That game was among the worst of Fields’ career at Ohio State, with the quarterback throwing three picks alongside his two-touchdown, 300-yard performance. It didn’t help that Michael Penix Jr., playing under center for the Hoosiers, was playing out of his mind, connecting for 491 yards, five touchdowns and a single pick. Of course, that pick — which Ohio State’s Shaun Wade would return for a touchdown — would loom large for Indiana.

Luck of the draw

Of course, that’s simply what Indiana has to deal with year in and year out as a member of the highly competitive Big Ten East that always includes some combination of strong Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State teams. But things are particularly challenging for the Hoosiers this season.

The strength of the Big Ten East this season has been well documented, with four teams ranked in the top-10 of the latest AP Poll. Indiana will have the misfortune of playing all four of these teams by the end of the season. Adding to this unlucky draw is the fact Indiana has also already played No. 11 Iowa and No. 2 Cincinnati. While Indiana certainly is better than its record, that record could conceivably include six losses to top-10 opponents.

Ohio State is the third-straight top-10 opponent the Hoosiers are facing, having previously encountered Penn State and Michigan State.

Bye, bye baby

When it comes to Ohio State’s success after the bye week, the tough thing is that the Buckeyes really just haven’t lost all that many games in the last decade, and none of those losses have come following a bye in a long time, Heck, Ohio State even won after the bye in 2011 when Luke Fickell was interim head coach.

The benefit of byes is that it allows players to get healthy and teams to address broader challenges for challenging upcoming opponents. This year, the bye’s placement doesn’t seem to bring those benefits so much to bear, because nearly the whole meat of Ohio State’s schedule is yet to come.

While the Buckeyes’ bye week came conveniently in the middle of the regular season, the overall difficulty and strength of schedule skews heavily in the back half of the season, and Indiana certainly looks on its surface to be the least challenging opponent of the remaining bunch.

Stroud, all the way

Speaking of someone who had a week off earlier this season already, redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud wasn’t always everyone’s favorite for starting quarterback at Ohio State, especially after his first three games as a starter to open the season. Yes, Stroud threw a pick against Minnesota, Oregon and, in his worst performance of the season, Tulsa. He sat out against Akron, but he hasn’t looked back since, riding a rocket ship to the top of the college football world and many Heisman watch lists.

In his last two starts versus Rutgers and Maryland, Stroud has been near-perfect. He threw five touchdowns in each matchup, and completed greater than 70& of his passes in both games. TBD if Stroud is able to continue this momentum as the Buckeyes move deeper into the toughest part of their schedule, but he’s showing all the right things to give confidence in his ability to lead a championship level team.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about the receivers who’ve helped Stroud get to this point, including veterans Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, both of whom are on the 2021 Biletnikoff watch list for the best receiver in the nation. Stroud’s also aided by the up-and-comers like Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Less frequently, he even sometimes gets help from tight end Jeremy Ruckert.

Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down

That being said, Stroud is just one of 11 players on offense, and he’s aided by the Ohio State offensive line, which has grown to become one of the most elite units in the nation. They’ve protected Stroud, not allowing a single sack against Rutgers or Maryland, and have been a force pushing the Buckeyes’ rushing offense to 210+ yards per game.

Heading into the season, the line was anchored by Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, but players like Matthew Jones and Dawand Jones have shown just how much depth the line has. That depth, including Matthew Jones’ ability to shift positions on the line, will certainly be a boon for the Buckeyes down the stretch.

Carry on, TreVeyon

That strength on the line has also helped true freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson rise as one of the hottest running backs in the conference. Henderson hasn’t needed to see much action in the last three games. He had just eight carries in each of the Buckeyes’ games against Akron and Rutgers, and 16 versus Maryland. While his contributions might have been limited in time to the first three quarters of the game, Henderson’s three total touchdowns against the Terps helped put the game out of reach early on.

Henderson’s success is also aided by a solid running back room around him. While running backs coach Tony Alford hasn’t exactly opted for the running back by committee approach, three other backs had multiple carries against Maryland, which helps to keep Henderson fresh.

Rushing certainly looks to be a factor this season against Indiana. Last season, Ohio State’s running game largely allowed the Buckeyes to stay just out of reach of Indiana, with Master Teague III rolling for 169 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

On the other side...

After a well-documented rough start to the year, the defense is looking much more competent in recent weeks with secondary coach Matt Barnes calling plays. In their first three matchups, the Buckeyes were giving up 471 yards per game. They gave up an average of just 303 in their last three.

Nowhere was that shift more noteworthy than in the Buckeyes’ rushing defense. After giving up more than 200 yards on the ground against both Minnesota and Oregon (granted, teams that boasted two of the nation’s top rushers heading into the season), the Ohio State defense has allowed just 79 rushing yards on average through its last four games.

They’re not perfect, but there are signs of excitement — like a pick-six in each of the last four games for the defense. And the Buckeyes will need those defensive sparks to continue down the oft mentioned challenging stretch ahead.

Who’s that with the headset?

Tom Allen has been at the helm in Indiana since he took over for the departed Kevin Wilson in 2016, coaching the Hoosiers to a loss in the Foster Farms Bowl before his first full season in 2017. Previously, Allen, an Indiana native from New Castle, had coached as defensive coordinator at Indiana for one season under Wilson.

Indiana teams have gotten progressively better under Allen, finishing seventh, sixth, fourth and second in consecutive seasons in the Big Ten East (obviously, this year looks to be a step back), though the Hoosiers have yet to win a bowl game under Allen’s tenure.

A defense to write home about

Well, sort of.

For a program traditionally noted for high-flying offense (at least it was when Kevin Wilson was there), the Indiana team we have seen this year has found its success very much on the other side of the ball with a competent defense. Of course, that statement bears some recency bias, since the Hoosiers have the worst scoring defense in the conference, allowing 26.8 points per game. Still, Indiana locked down what had been a prolific Michigan State offense last Saturday, stifling Mel Tucker’s team to its lowest point total of the season.

That being said, the Hoosiers are worst in the conference in sacks, having gotten to the quarterback just nine times this season. They’re going up against an Ohio State squad that has allowed eight sacks this season (second in the Big Ten), and an offensive line that, as mentioned, hasn’t allowed a sack in two games.

The linebacking corps (and seemingly the whole defense) is anchored by Micah McFadden, a rare, consistent bright spot for the Hoosiers. The senior has eight solo tackles for loss — the best total in the Big Ten — and two forced fumbles this season.

Out of the endzone

On the flip side, as anyone who watched Saturday’s matchup against Michigan State can attest, Indiana’s offense leaves much to be desired. The Hoosiers have scored just one touchdown in conference play. One. By comparison, Ohio State has scored 19 touchdowns through three games of conference play.

The most prolific Indiana’s offense has been so far this season has been against Idaho of the FCS, a game in which the Hoosiers put up 56 points, and Western Kentucky, where Indiana totaled 35. On the whole, Indiana is averaging a mere 22.3 points per game — 10th in the conference.

The Hoosiers have been inhibited by injury to Michael Penix Jr., their starting quarterback, as well as the fact they’ve faced some of the strongest defenses in the FBS. Things won’t lighten up too much for them come Saturday.

Calling for backup

With Penix having once again suffered an injury to keep him sidelined, the Hoosiers will have Jack Tuttle under center once again come Saturday night. The second-stringer, who started against Michigan State, has been, in a word, underwhelming. Against the Spartans, Tuttle connected on 28-of-52 attempts for 188 yards, no touchdowns and two picks. He was also sacked thrice.

A one-time four-star recruit, Tuttle had suited up for Utah before transferring to Indiana in 2019. He played in three games in 2020, with his most impressive performance coming against No. 16 Wisconsin in the Hoosiers’ regular season finale. In that matchup, Tuttle completed 13-of-22 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns.

Even if Tuttle plays at that level, it hardly looks like enough to keep up with Stroud and the rest of the Ohio State offense.

A little help here?

It feels like he’s been around forever. At least it’s finally his senior season. Another receiver on the Biletnikoff watch list, Ty Fryfogle isn’t exactly having the auspicious start to his senior season that he was no doubt hoping for. Through six games, Indiana’s star receiver has had 33 catches for 337 yards and just one touchdown. By comparison, Fryfogle finished the truncated 2020 regular season (which, mind you, was just seven games) with 37 catches for 721 yards and seven touchdowns.

Granted, a huge chunk of that yardage came against none other than Ohio State. Last year against the Buckeyes, Fryfogle hauled in seven catches for 218 yards and three touchdowns in the most prolific performance of his career.

Fryfogle isn’t an island in the Indiana receiving corps, but he’s close. Only tight end Peyton Hendershot has accrued even close to the same volume of receiving yards, pulling in 24 catches for 306 yards and a single touchdown.

Just for kicks

One area Ohio State has a definite edge is in special teams. Noah Ruggles, a transfer from North Carolina, has been perfect on field goals and extra points this season (not that he’s been put in a position to attempt a long field goal or one where the game is on the line. Oh, the benefits of a powerful offense…). Against Maryland, Ohio State fans also got exposed to an electric return game from freshman receiver Emeke Egbuka, who is now averaging an impressive 34.4 yards per kickoff return (best in the Big Ten and third in the FBS).

For Indiana, special teams have struggled. Yes, Charles Campbell, Indiana’s kicker, made three field goals against Michigan State last week, but in a game where points were hard to come by and field position means a lot more than it should, freshman punter James Evans didn’t do the Hoosiers any favors with his 39.4 yard average (he’s actually been averaging just 37.5 yards on the season). The Hoosiers were also plagued by poor decisions in the return game.

It’s only a matter of time

Interestingly, Ohio State has the lowest time of possession in the conference, holding onto the football for just 26:31 per game. Indiana, meanwhile, has possessed the ball for an average of 32-plus minutes per game. Go figure, that disparity hasn’t seemed to matter too much for Ohio State, with the Buckeyes able to score at will and bend and not break (well, sometimes break) on defense.

Efficiency at its best (sort of)

Indiana has among the fewest penalty yards per game in the conference, giving up less than 40 yards per game due to penalties. Ohio State, for reference, gives up 66.7 penalty yards per game. That balance would seem to strike, therefore, in the Hoosiers’ favor, and we do have to give credit where credit is due.

However, it’s not all clean football for Indiana. The Hoosiers have lost the ball a dozen times on the season, among the worst in the FBS.Those turnovers have proven to be their downfall. Most recently, against Michigan State, Indiana had two picks, courtesy of Jack Tuttle, and lost a fumble. When the margin of defeat was a mere five points, those three lost possessions have to sting. Need we remind you that Shaun Wade’s pick-six last year against Indiana also proved to be critical in Ohio State’s win?

All of the lights

The Buckeyes have not been strangers to late kickoffs this season, having faced Minnesota in their season opener on a Thursday night and Akron on a Saturday night (so we could conveniently go to bed by halftime). Minnesota was also on the road, and watching Stroud handle that environment, in his first ever collegiate start no less, is a much different story than what we can expect to see for the maturing quarterback with five starts and four wins under his belt. So, despite Tom Allen’s assurances that Memorial Stadium will be an intimidating spot for a young Buckeyes’ squad, Ohio State appears to be equipped to handle that environment.

Of course, we’re all shuddering thinking about that other time Ohio State went to face an unranked team from Indiana for a night game back in 2018…

Summary

Ohio State enters Saturday’s matchup as the favorite by a long shot, with Indiana sitting as 21-point dogs at home. Emotions aside, 21 points feels like a reasonable margin for an Ohio State squad that’s been beating somewhat inferior opponents by a whole lot more. Indiana will put up a fight, with its defense holding back the Buckeyes’ elite skill position players more than they’ve seen almost all season, but the matchups ultimately sway in Ohio State’s favor.

Meanwhile, the matchup of Ohio State’s defense against Indiana’s offense would also seem to skew in the Buckeyes’ favor. Michael Penix Jr. has shown the ability to play at an elite level, but he is out, and his replacement has not demonstrated any sort of the same spark. Though Ohio State’s defense has had its own growing pains, its units seem to be in a better spot than an anemic Indiana offense.

It’s the first of a long stretch of challenges for the Buckeyes, but don’t let the 2-4 record fool you. While there don’t seem to be many bright spots for this Hoosier squad, that’s also because of the quality of opponents Tom Allen’s team has played through just half of the season. At some point, it feels like Indiana is poised to break through and secure an elite win — there is too much talent on the roster to not do so. It seemed like it might happen last weekend against Michigan State. Or perhaps Indiana just kicked the can down the road for another week.

LGHL prediction: Ohio State 41, Indiana 19