The most anticipated game on Ohio State’s Big 10 schedule turns out to be Indiana.
Even with the craziness 2020 has brought, no one outside the state of Indiana would have expected the Hoosiers, a team OSU beat 51-10 last year, to provide a top-10 matchup for the Buckeyes. But that’s where we are at. The surprise team in the Big 10, Indiana is off to a 4-0 start and has emerged as the top threat to Ohio State reaching another conference championship game.
The Hoosiers are 4-0 in Big 10 play for the first time since 1987. At number nine in the Associated Press poll, the Hoosiers hold their highest ranking since they were fourth way back in November 1967.
With Ohio State’s three remaining regular-season games coming against Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan, teams holding a combined three wins, Indiana has the best chance to dethrone the Buckeyes from the top standing in the Big 10 East.
Penn State and Michigan were predicted to be the other top contenders in the East coming into the season, but the Nittany Lions (0-4) and Wolverines (1-3) surprisingly find themselves in the conference basement while Indiana sits atop the division along with the Buckeyes.
“Indiana deserves credit,” said Ohio State head coach Ryan Day on Tuesday. “(Head coach Tom Allen) deserves credit with the way they are playing right now. They are just playing really, really well in all three phases. They are making very few mistakes.
“They have a really good scheme on both sides of the ball. They do a good job coaching. They have upgraded their personnel. And in 2020, anything can happen.”
Day said he is not surprised by Indiana’s success, citing their coaching and upgraded talent. But he did acknowledge the Hoosiers have raised the bar much higher than they showed in last year’s 41-point loss to the Buckeyes in Bloomington.
“We have to win every game here,” said Day. “Every game is big. But when Indiana is playing the way they are right now, it’s certainly a little bit different in the fact that this is a major challenge for us. It’s a challenge every time we play a game, but the way they are playing and the way they have won games, our margin for error gets smaller and smaller.”
The Hoosiers’ success this season stems from stellar quarterback play by sophomore Michael Penix and a defense that has thrived in forcing turnovers.
In his first year as the full-time starter, Penix has thrown for at least 320 yards in the Hoosiers’ last two games. He has developed a strong chemistry with wide receivers Ty Fryfogle (424 yards four TDs) and Whop Philyor (287 yards, one TD).
“He is really playing mistake free,” said Day of Penix. “He has made a lot of plays. He keeps them on schedule. He has made some big-time throws in tight spots. He’s fearless, and you have to give him a lot of credit. Right now he’s playing almost perfectly. That’s a big challenge for us.
“He’s a very competitive player and he has some really good weapons around him. For the most part they have done a good job of protecting him and his receivers make a lot of plays. When you add that all up, that’s why you have a team that’s 4-0 coming in here.”
Defensively, the Hoosiers have given up some big chunks of yards at times — Penn State put up 488 total yards and Michigan threw for 344 yards against them — but they have made up for it by forcing turnovers. Indiana has 10 interceptions and recovered two fumbles. Ohio State’s Justin Fields has yet to throw an interception, but he faces a big challenge in continuing that streak against an aggressive IU secondary.
“They played really, really well last week,” said Day. “They shut out Michigan State, created some turnovers and played well. They have been playing really, really well. We have to be ready to go right from the get go and we have to be willing to play for four quarters. The whole idea is to get the game into the fourth quarter and win the game in the fourth quarter.”