All week, the talk from Ohio State coaches and players was about how tough they expect a game Saturday against Indiana to be.
They refer to the close calls the Buckeyes have had in recent years against the Hoosiers, and they aren’t incorrect. Indiana often has given Ohio State fits. The Buckeyes politely decline to point out that they haven’t lost to Indiana since 1988, a span of 24 games. Why belabor the point?
In fact, the surprise isn’t so much that the Buckeyes have such a long winning streak as much as the fact the Hoosiers have probably tested the Buckeyes more than they should have based on the disparity in talent between the programs.
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Recruiting rankings are imperfect. Projecting how a particular teenager will develop is asking for trouble. Injuries, maturity and luck are all wild cards. But projecting how a program loaded with four- and five-star players will do against a program without them isn’t hard at all. Talent prevails.
Ohio State (2-0) will bring 12 players to Bloomington who were five-star recruits according to the 247Sports composite rankings. The Buckeyes have 43 four-star prospects.
Indiana (2-0) has zero five-star players on its roster. The Hoosiers have only three four-star players, all in the 2019 recruiting class. One is running back Sampson James, who decommitted from Ohio State.
Having blue-chip prospects is no guarantee of success. They have to develop and play like blue-chip players. The five veteran five-star players for the Buckeyes — 2017’s Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Baron Browning, Shaun Wade, Wyatt Davis — have taken major strides this year.
Young, who played last year on sprained ankles, has been a consistent force this year.
ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit, asked in an interview this week with The Dispatch whether the defensive end was as dominating as any defensive player so far, replied, “You’d have to put him in that discussion.”
Okudah looks to be next in the Buckeyes’ factory line of cornerbacks to the NFL.
“Year 3 into the program, he's killing it,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
Wade has become a versatile, play-making piece in the secondary.
“Extremely talented,” Day said. “He can play outside, inside. He can blitz and helps us on special teams. I think he's going to have a great year.”
Browning, who’s mixing in at linebacker, is playing noticeably faster this year in the new defensive scheme. Davis has built on the progress he made last year at right guard when he replaced the injured Demetrius Knox.
Then, of course, there is the five-star who didn’t originally sign with Ohio State — quarterback Justin Fields. If Indiana, a 16½-point underdog, is to have much of a chance, it has to hope that the growing pains Fields has avoided so far kick in.
None of this means the Hoosiers don’t have a chance. Their close calls recently will give them confidence. The Buckeyes do have genuine respect for them.
“I think they're a very, very good football team,” defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison said. “Indiana always is very well-coached. They play extremely hard. They are going to be a very big test.”
It may be. It’s the first road game of the season for the Buckeyes, as well as the conference opener. Indiana always swings hard against Ohio State.
But it’s the punch of a middleweight against a heavyweight.