BLOOMINGTON — Indiana has silenced doubters throughout this topsy-turvy 2020 college football season.
The No. 9 Hoosiers (4-0) will play their biggest football game in decades when they face No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) on Saturday at Ohio Stadium (noon, FOX). The fact IU remains a 20.5-point underdog heading into the matchup adds another level of disrespect. Indiana head coach Tom Allen said earlier in the week that margin would be addressed, but it will take more than motivation to take down a Buckeyes team with four- and five-star players up and down the roster.
“The people are going to talk. The critics are going to talk,” IU running back Stevie Scott III said. “But at the end of the day, that’s something to this whole team and the coaching staff that just gets this team fired up, to keep proving the world wrong.”
IU’s last top-10 football matchup was the 1968 Rose Bowl, when the No. 4 Hoosiers lost to No. 1 USC 14-3 after winning a share of the 1967 Big Ten title.
The Hoosiers haven’t beaten the Buckeyes since 1988 and lost last year to Ohio State 51-10, but all of that is immaterial to Allen, who right now has IU believing it can compete with any team in the country.
“This football team is highly motivated,” Allen said. “This football team has worked extremely hard, and we’re used to being told that we don’t measure up.”
Here’s a look at five key matchups heading into Saturday’s IU-Ohio State game:
1. Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr. vs. Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Penix and Fields won’t be lined up against each other, of course, but the quarterback who performs better Saturday will likely dictate the outcome of the game.
Penix was a bit shakier last week against Michigan State, throwing two interceptions, but still managed more than 300 yards passing for his second straight game. Overall, Penix has thrown for 1,070 yards with nine TD to three interceptions.
Fields has picked up where he left off as a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, with 908 yards, 11 TDs and no interceptions through three games. A dual-threat quarterback, Fields has not popped off as many big runs so far this season (27 rushes, 57 carries, two TDs). But he’s always a threat to escape the pocket and make plays with his legs.
“What makes Justin Fields so dynamic is his ability to extend plays,” Indiana defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “Both on first and second down and in third-down efficiency. His eye progression is good. He sees coverage, and he can recognize things and anticipate.”
Penix will get his first career start against the Buckeyes after sitting out last season’s game with a shoulder injury. An interesting aside, had circumstances been different, both Penix and Fields could have been rivals in a different conference. Fields transferred to Ohio State from Georgia, while Penix was committed to Tennessee before changing his mind and coming to the Hoosiers due to the Vols undergoing a coaching change from Butch Jones to Jeremy Pruitt at the end of 2017. Penix met Fields once at a high school quarterback camp.
“Got to meet him, talk to him,” Penix said. “He’s a great guy. He’s a great quarterback. I feel he’s going to have a great future, and it’s going to be a great matchup. It’s something people want to see.”
2. Indiana secondary vs. Ohio State receivers
Indiana’s ball-hawking secondary has posted 10 interceptions in four games, the most in the Big Ten. But IU’s corners and safeties will be tested against a pair of big-play threats in Ohio State sophomore receiver Garrett Wilson (24 catches, 344 yards, two TDs) and junior receiver Chris Olave (18 catches, 288 yards, four TDs).
IU sophomore 5-foot-10 cornerback Tiawan Mullen, coming off a two-interception game against Michigan State, will be tasked with staying with the 6-1 Olave in man coverage.
“He’s a great receiver, but we have great receivers at IU also,” Mullen said. “So I’ll be well prepared.”
IU cornerbacks Jaylin Williams and Reese Taylor will match up with Wilson on the other side, with the third corner available to be deployed in nickel and dime coverage sets.
3. Indiana offensive line vs. Ohio State defensive line
IU’s offensive line surrendered four sacks, including two to Chase Young, in last year’s 51-10 loss to the Buckeyes.
“Rewatching last year’s game on tape was pretty ugly,” IU senior center Harry Crider said. “Hard to watch the o-line. It was definitely not our best performance, but, yeah, it’s something to improve on. It gives us even more encouragement to improve on the details.”
The good news? Young is now rushing the quarterback in the NFL with The Washington Football Team after leaving Ohio State and declaring for the NFL draft last season. But Ohio State still has posted nine sacks in three games, with a strong inside rush from 6-2, 300-pound junior defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, who leads the Buckeyes with three sacks.
“They don’t do a lot on defense,” Crider said. “They are who they are. They play a lot of guys, a lot of really strong, powerful guys.”
IU could be down two starters on the offensive line again, with starting left tackle Caleb Jones and starting left guard Mike Katic both game-time decisions.
4. Indiana defensive line vs. Ohio State offensive line
The Hoosiers have been strong on the defensive front, showing they can physically match up with any team in the conference. The ability for IU’s defensive front to occupy blockers has played a big role in the Hoosiers allowing just 13 rushing yards against Michigan and 60 yards against Michigan State in their last two games.
IU also was able to get a little more pressure from its four-man rush against Michigan State with defensive tackle Jerome Johnson recording his first two sacks. Ohio State’s offensive line is formidable, led by preseason All-American Wyatt Davis (6-5, 310) at right guard.
5. Indiana special teams vs. Ohio State special teams
Ohio State coach Ryan Day has carried over the emphasis on special teams from his predecessor, Urban Meyer, who always placed a premium on generating big special teams plays from his coaching stints at both Ohio State and Florida. Last season, Ohio State blocked a punt against Indiana for a touchdown.
“That just makes you sick,” Allen said after the game.
Indiana has already failed to field an onside kick against Rutgers this season after failing to do so down the stretch against Tennessee in the Gator Bowl last season.
The Hoosiers are strong in the kicking game, with sophomore kicker Charles Campbell 7-of-8 on field-goal attempts and punter Haydon Whitehead averaging 41.7 yards per punt.
Punter Drue Chrisman is averaging 41.6 yards per punt for Ohio State, but the kicking game has been shakier for the Buckeyes, with kickers Blake Haubeil and Dominic DiMaccio combining to make just two of four attempts.