Depth may be OSU’s greatest weapon
For an entire generation, the question when Ohio State plays Indiana hasn’t been whether the Buckeyes will win but how.
The Buckeyes have beaten the Hoosiers 23 straight times. Indiana, a 25-point underdog Saturday, hasn’t defeated Ohio State since 1988.
The reasons are numerous — recruiting bases, football state vs. basketball state, tradition, etc. But in recent years, Indiana has usually played Urban Meyer’s teams tough, only to fade late.
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In three of the last four meetings, the Hoosiers have led the Buckeyes in the second half. They led 14-6 at halftime in the opener last year in Bloomington before the Buckeyes took control for a 49-21 victory. In 2015, Indiana led 17-13 in the third quarter in a 34-27 final. In 2014, the Buckeyes trailed 20-14 late in the third quarter, then pulled away to win 42-27.
Every game is unique. Each has its pivot points. But the common thread is Ohio State’s superior depth. It’s not that Ohio State’s starters have consistently dominated the Hoosiers. It’s that its overall roster depth allows the Buckeyes to impose their will late against the Hoosiers, as Ohio State tends to do against many of its opponents.
“That is the challenge,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said this week. “I’m not bashful about saying that. I said it a year ago after the season. I said it after that game last year. We kind of ran out of gas. They just wore us down.
“That’s about recruiting and player development. We’ve been addressing those issues since last season. It’s not going to be fixed overnight. I think we’re getting closer in that area, but we’re a very young football team overall this year.”
Consider Ohio State’s roster. The Buckeyes have 48 players who were four-star recruits and 10 who were five-star. That’s more than a complete two-deep depth chart of blue-chip talent.
Then factor in that the Buckeyes also excel in recruiting and developing overlooked prospects. Current starters Thayer Munford, Jordan Fuller, Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland, Robert Landers and Damon Arnette arrived as three-star recruits.
Allen said Ohio State’s depth is “really the game-changer” between the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten.
“That’s a credit to them for being able to recruit a high number of guys that are extremely talented,” he said. “Their special teams have very talented players, and there’s not much of a drop-off when 1s and 2s are replaced when injuries happen during the season.”
That depth allows the Buckeyes to rotate players to keep them fresh. Penn State is one of the few Big Ten programs that can compete with Ohio State on the recruiting trail and has comparable talent. But Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said this week that depth played a major role in the Buckeyes’ comeback last week.
“We played our first-teamers at a much higher rep count than we have the previous games,” Franklin said. “I think that put us in a position we were in (leading by 12 with 8 minutes left). But I also think we ran out of gas a little bit in the fourth quarter.
“They’ve got great players and great depth and have had that for a number of years. Come the fourth quarter, we had guys play a lot more reps than they’ve ever played. They started to wear down, and it showed.”
Ohio State has a defensive line that has been able to withstand the loss of Nick Bosa, arguably the top defender in the country. Its wide receiver unit goes at least seven deep and includes three fifth-year senior captains. The Buckeyes have a potent running back tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber.
One person who doesn’t share the view that Ohio State has optimum depth is Meyer himself.
“I don’t see that right now,” he said Wednesday. “I really don’t. We’re hanging on at a couple positions right now. We’ve got to get some guys back.”
He pointed to the offensive line, where Branden Bowen, who started last year before suffering a broken leg, required another surgery recently. Brady Taylor, projected to be the starting center coming out of spring practice, is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.
“Brady Taylor is key to get back,” Meyer said. “He should be back in a couple weeks. You never have enough depth.”
That may be true from a coach’s perspective. But you don’t need truth serum to know he’d prefer to have Ohio State’s depth if the Indiana game is close in the second half.