COLUMBUS, Ohio – Can Indiana play with the big boys?
Everyone knows the Hoosiers have improved by leaps and bounds over the moribund program that went 25 years in between being ranked in the AP Poll and it's already been a great season for IU after wins over Penn State and Michigan (though those teams are both experiencing down years). But is Indiana truly ready to contend for a Big Ten championship? We'll find out this afternoon.
That's because Ohio State is the real deal. Unlike the Wolverines and Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes are not having a down season. They are as good as they've ever been, taking the field with a roster that includes maybe the most top-to-bottom of talent of any team in the country (yes, including Alabama and Clemson). Indiana has a handful more four-star players than it did a half-decade ago and it's done a terrific job of turning lower-rated three-stars into difference-makers (Whop Philyor, Micah McFadden and Tiawan Mullen are some of the best examples), but there is still an obvious talent gap in this game and the Hoosiers will have to overcome that with scheme and execution.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, in case you haven't heard ad nauseum by now, is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and among the favorites for the Heisman Trophy (he'd have my vote if the season ended today). Indiana has made its mark on defense with interceptions this year, leading the Big Ten with 10 picks, but Fields interceptions are vanishingly rare. He's thrown three in his entire college career in 476 pass attempts and none of those have come this season. He has tossed 11 touchdown passes and is completing an otherworldly 86.7% of his throws, so Indiana's defense will have to be letter-perfect in order to get stops. Mullen draws the toughest assignment: slowing down star wide receiver Chris Olave, who caught 12 touchdowns last season and is averaging 16 yards per reception this year.
Indiana's best hope is to make the Buckeyes one-dimensional. With JK Dobbins now in the NFL, OSU's rushing attack isn't nearly as formidable as it's been in the recent past, though it's still averaging 4.8 yards per rush. If Indiana can slow down the Buckeye ground game and force Fields into some throws he'd rather not make, then the opportunities for interceptions might come.
It's more likely, however, that the IU offense has to hold its own in a shootout for the Hoosiers to have a chance. Ohio State's defense was arguably the best in the country last season, but it lost defensive end Chase Young and cornerback Jeff Okudah, two of the top three picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. No matter how well you recruit (and the Buckeyes have done it as well as anyone in the last decade), it's hard to replace that kind of production. Ohio State's defense isn't nearly as scary as it was in 2019 and is giving up 23 points per game against some relatively weak competition so far. Opposing teams are completing 68% of their passes as the Buckeyes try not to give up big plays and IU's Michael Penix Jr. could have some success with short and intermediate throws to Philyor in the slot, which might open up opportunities for Ty Fryfogle and Miles Marshall on the outside. Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade is a likely first-round NFL Draft pick and has shut down one side of the field this year, but he can't be everywhere at once and the opposite side could be open for IU. If Indiana is able to move the ball down the field, it will need to cash in in the red zone, which it was largely unable to do against Michigan State last week. Field goals won't cut it in this game.
Can Indiana win today? Sure. Far stranger things have happened in college football. In fact, mid-decade Michigan State, a team not much more talented on paper than IU is now, overcame this kind of talent gap against the Buckeyes twice, in 2013 and 2015, and kept the game well within reach two other times. It would be a step forward for Indiana if this game stayed within striking distance, but that's not what the Hoosiers are here for. Indiana came to win a football game and coach Tom Allen has his team believing it can do it. That's the first step of a long journey to winning, but IU has taken that step.