Two or three months ago anyone suggesting that Ohio State’s football game against Indiana could be the biggest game of its season probably would have been laughed at or told they needed to call a cab to take them home.
But here we are with No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) playing No. 9 Indiana (4-0) today in a game which could play a big role in determining who wins the Big Ten East Division.
The odds makers say OSU is a 21-point favorite over the Hoosiers. But Indiana fans say, “Not so fast, my friend,” as Lee Corso — who had a 41-68-2 record as the Hoosiers coach from 1973-1982 — likes to say on ESPN’s College GameDay.
This year’s OSU-Indiana game might be different than any other year’s match-up between the two schools since Indiana’s last win in the series in 1988.
There have been close games in the 32 years since IU’s last win over the Buckeyes, which was a 41-7 rout by the Hoosiers over John Cooper’s first Ohio State team.
But most of those close games were contests in which Ohio State let Indiana teams with less talent hang around longer than they should have.
It happened in 2015 when OSU’s 34-27 win at Indiana wasn’t secured until Eli Apple batted down an Indiana pass in the end zone on the last play of the game. It happened in 2012 when the Buckeyes had an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter and had to cover an onside kick in the final minute to escape with a 52-49 win.
The talent level and recruiting rankings still point to an Ohio State win. But this is not Lee Corso’s Indiana or Gerry DiNardo’s Indiana or John Pont’s Indiana.
What Indiana, with Tom Allen as its coach, reminds you of is Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State program before it went into a decline at the end of his career.
Like Dantonio’s best teams, Indiana has a roster heavy on 3-star recruits who were underrated coming out of high school or developed into better players in college.
And Allen might have recruited the 3-star level of high school players even better than Dantonio.
The Hoosiers’ best players at the “skill” positions are quarterback Michael Penix, wide receiver Ty Fryfogle, wide receiver Whop Philyor, running back Stevie Scott and tight end Peyton Hendershot.
All of them were 3-star recruits. Only Hendershot is from Indiana. Penix and Philyor are from Florida, Fryfogle is from Mississippi and Scott is from New York, not typically places where Indiana has recruited well if it recruited there at all.
Here are four things that could play big roles in today’s game:
1. Can Ohio State’s defense affect Penix? The sophomore quarterback is not just the engine of Indiana’s offense, he’s also several of the tires. He has thrown for 1,070 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Fifty-one percent of the Hoosiers’ offensive plays have been passes, compared to 39 percent for Ohio State.
Penix has not faced as good a defense as OSU’s in its first four games against Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State. But the Buckeyes’ often-questioned defensive backs have been inconsistent against three quarterbacks who have already either lost their starting job or are in danger of losing it.
2. How well will Ohio State protect Justin Fields? When Fields gets time to throw, touchdowns soon follow. Indiana’s blitz-heavy defense has produced 12 sacks.
3. Avoid turnovers. Indiana has 10 pass interceptions and two fumble recovers. But again the level of competition might be a factor in those statistics.
4. Can Ohio State start fast and punch a hole in Indiana’s confidence? The Buckeyes have gotten off to fast starts in all three of their games.
It’s a different kind of Ohio State-Indiana game. Indiana has some really good players. But OSU has good players at more positions and more depth.
The prediction: Ohio State 35, Indiana 21.