COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — 2020 has been a year full of the unexpected and one of those unpredictable things is Ohio State’s upcoming game against top 10 Indiana, a game that will likely decide which team plays in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 19.
The Hoosiers are ranked 9th in the country and come into the game against OSU with a 4-0 record with wins over Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State.
“I’m not really surprised [about their success] to be honest with you guys,” center Josh Myers said. “One of the differences, you can just see it on film, is the effort they give. They’re playing really hard.”
But take Indiana’s 4-0 start with a grain of salt. The combined record of the four teams the Hoosiers beat is 3-13, meaning the Buckeyes have the same number of wins as all four of those teams.
Ohio State is only 3-0 because the Buckeyes game at Maryland was cancelled last week due to positive cases at the Terrapins’ football program.
Challenges Indiana presents
#1: QB Michael Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers’ passing game
Although Indiana’s wins have come against below-average teams, the Hoosiers should not be taken lightly. Indiana has scored at least 35 points in three of its four games, rank third in the Big Ten in scoring and have arguably the second-best quarterback in the conference in Michael Penix Jr.
“He’s making a lot of plays,” Ryan Day said. “He keeps them on schedule, he’s made some really big time throws in tight spots and his fearless.”
The sophomore averages 267 yards a game with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s also the second-highest graded quarterback in the Big Ten behind Justin Fields with a rating of 83.7, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s a great player, strong arm, really great receiving corps, so we know they’re going to try to attack us down field and challenge us this week,” safety Josh Proctor said.
Penix is complimented by one of the top wide receivers in the conference in Ty Fryfogle, top-end tight end Peyton Hendershot and versatile slot receiver Whop Philyor.
Last week against the Spartans, Fryfogle hauled in 11 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns. The week before that against Michigan, the senior had seven catches for 142 yards.
Penix’s downside has been his inconsistency in completing passes at just 61 percent.
Indiana will be the biggest test yet, and probably all season, for an Ohio State secondary that has bent but not broken this year. The Buckeyes lost cornerback Cameron Brown for the season to an Achilles injury against Penn State and it remains to been seen who will fill his place.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is confident in his two starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Shaun Wade as well as the safety combination of Marcus Hooker and Proctor.
In fact, Proctor has been used just about everywhere in the defensive backfield as a strong safety, free safety and slot corner, a position usually held by senior Marcus Williamson who graduated from Westerville South.
But the secondary has left much to be desired when it comes to open-field tackling, especially in the second half against Penn State and Rutgers.
Indiana prefers to spread defenses out and is not particularly effective on the ground averaging 95 yards a game, third lowest in the conference. How Ohio State responds to this pass-heavy offense could be a good indication of how it will handle teams like Wisconsin in a potential Big Ten Championship or Clemson in a playoff rematch.
#2 Indiana’s pass rush
The Hoosiers’ defense only allows 19 points a game, fourth best in the conference. A big reason for that is their pass rush. Indiana ranks first in the Big Ten with 12 sacks and blitz frequently — and more worrisome — unpredictably.
“They blitz a lot and really don’t have a lot of tendencies that way,” Ryan Day said. “They just dial up different blitzes. They’re very aggressive.”
The Hoosiers’ ability to pressure the quarterback has no doubt contributed to the 12 turnovers their defense has forced, which is tied for first in the Big Ten.
“With the blitz, the quarterback doesn’t know where it’s coming from,” Justin Fields said. “[You have to] scramble out of the pocket, make a bad decision or throw and that’s going to be the tough part this week is picking up their blitzes and I feel like if we do that, we’ll be pretty successful on the field throwing the ball.”
Out of those 12 turnovers, 10 have been interceptions, a stat that bodes well for Fields who has only thrown three career interceptions in 17 games and zero this season.
Bonkers stat: Fields has 11 incompletions and 11 touchdowns this season.
#3 Indiana’s rush defense
After giving up 250 yards rushing in their 36-35 overtime win over Penn State, the Hoosiers run defense has proven effective.
They only gave up 13 yards to Michigan, 60 yards to Michigan State last week and 121 yards to Rutgers.
Ohio State ranks third in rushing in the Big ten averaging 208 yards a game, but it’s still not quite up to the Buckeyes’ standard. OSU’s offensive line feels as though it can play better in the run game and that will be put to the test, especially in the red zone where Indiana thrives.
The Hoosiers rank No. 3 in the country in red zone defense, a stat skewed by the number of games the Big Ten has played compared to other conferences. But regardless, Indiana has only allowed one red zone rushing touchdown in nine attempts.
Odds and prediction
Despite this being a top-10 showdown, the Buckeyes are still 21-point favorites. That spread likely comes from the below-average teams Indiana has played this year, the turnovers they benefitted from that they won’t get against Ohio State, Justin Fields (enough said), and OSU’s sheer talent overshadows that of the Hoosiers.
Justin Holbrock score prediction: Indiana 17 Ohio State 38