The Journal Gazette
Saturday, November 21, 2020 1:00 am

Matchup pits IU in rare game of top 10s

Will be just 2nd time Hoosiers in such spot

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Only one time in the 121-year history of Indiana football have the Hoosiers faced a top-10 opponent while ranked in the top-10 themselves.

Today will be the second.

The then-No. 4 Hoosiers lost the 1968 Rose Bowl to No. 1 USC, 14-3, but have a chance to even their record in top-10 battles when they take on No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus this afternoon.

A game like this, a matchup of the two best teams in the Big Ten East division, is the next step in coach Tom Allen's vision for the program as he tries to build it from a perennial conference also-ran into a true title contender.

“As you sit down and you map out what you believe you can do as a program and you tell recruits and their parents and their coaches the vision you have for Indiana University football and where we can be, this is part of it,” Allen said. “Having an opportunity to play at a tremendous venue, a high-level game, championship on the line, an opportunity to compete for a Big Ten championship. That's what this is all about.

“Even though others haven't shared in the belief that we can do that here, that's never wavered for me.”

Though Indiana, ranked ninth, is a significant underdog – oddsmakers have the Buckeyes favored by nearly three touchdowns – the Hoosiers have had anything but a just-happy-to-be-here attitude heading into the clash that could well determine the East's representative in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

The Hoosiers haven't beaten the Buckeyes since 1988 – the all-time series stands at 75-12-5 in favor of the Scarlet and Gray – but IU isn't carrying the weight of that history. They're just in Columbus to win one game.

“We just have to play lights out, play fast and physical, just play that Indiana football that we always talk about and just be ready to go,” said Hoosiers linebacker Micah McFadden, who leads Indiana with 31 tackles, including 41/2 for loss. “You can't really think, 'Oh it's Ohio State or some Big Ten matchup,' you just gotta prepare like you always prepare and attack each week with the same mindset.”

Indiana has shown the ability to play confidently in the spotlight this season, ending a 33-year drought against top-10 opponents with a Week 1 victory over Penn State and another 33-year losing streak against Michigan in Week 3.

Ohio State, one of the national title favorites, is a different beast. The three-time defending Big Ten champions are led by quarterback Justin Fields, arguably the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy and a likely future top-10 NFL draft pick. He presents a problem for Indiana's defense, which has thrived on interceptions, leading the Big Ten with 10.

The Hoosiers' concern is that Fields doesn't throw interceptions. The redshirt sophomore has three in his college career out of 476 passes and none this season. He has thrown 11 touchdowns and is averaging 10.9 yards per attempt this season.

“(Fields) is pretty deceptive in where he's throwing the ball, he's a great QB,” said IU cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who had two interceptions last week against Michigan State. “We just have to create turnovers, (disguising) the coverages we play. ... We just have to try to snatch the ball.”

On defense, the Buckeyes lost defensive end Chase Young and cornerback Jeff Okudah, two of the top three picks in the NFL draft, from last year's elite unit. This year, they're giving up 23 points per game – 32nd in the country, down from fourth in 2019 – and opposing passers are completing 68% of their throws. 

Indiana's Michael Penix Jr. could be in position to take advantage of that Buckeyes defense after throwing for at least 320 yards in each of his last two games. 

This will be Penix's first matchup against Ohio State, after injuries the last two years. In 2019, he led the Hoosiers to wins in their opening two games, but had to watch from the sidelines as the Buckeyes rolled past IU, 51-10, in Week 3.

“I'm not going to change (the way I prepare) at all because of who we're going to play,” Penix said. “I still feel like the way I prepare is great. Just making sure we stay confident. ... It's a game and we all put our shoulder pads on the same.”

Indiana at Ohio State

When: Noon today

Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

Records: No. 9 Indiana (4-0), No. 3 Ohio State (3-0)

TV: Fox

Radio: 92.3 FM

3 Storylines

Familiar position: This is the second time in six years Indiana has started 4-0. Both times the Hoosiers have faced a top-five Ohio State team in the fifth game. In 2015, the No. 1 Buckeyes came to Bloomington and the Hoosiers gave them all they could handle, including a memorable 79-yard Zander Diamont touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but fell 34-27. That loss started a streak of six straight defeats as Indiana finished that season 6-7. The Hoosiers have not started 5-0 since 1967, when they won eight straight to open the season on the way to the Rose Bowl.

Star on the outside: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is plenty talented, but it helps when you have wide receivers like Chris Olave. He caught 12 touchdown passes last season and has 18 catches for 288 yards and four touchdowns this year. Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen will have the honor of trying to slow Olave down.

Indiana's running challenge: The Hoosiers have struggled on the ground, picking up just 3 yards per carry. Against Michigan State's good-not-great defensive front, the Hoosiers gained only 2.9 yards per rush. Ohio State's front seven hasn't been nearly as dominant this season without defensive end Chase Young, but it's competent. If Indiana is going to make plays in the passing game, it will have to establish something on the ground.

Prediction: No. 3 Ohio State 37, No. 9 Indiana 20

- Dylan Sinn, The Journal Gazette

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