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Already at new heights, No. 9-ranked Indiana ready to take on No. 3 Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Coach Tom Allen fires up his Indiana players before they run onto the field for a game against Michigan State on Saturday.

Tom Allen choked up during his weekly news conference on Monday.

The Indiana football coach was asked about the long, unlikely road that has led him and his No. 9-ranked Hoosiers to the top of the Big Ten East standings heading into Saturday’s showdown – yes, that word applies – with No. 3 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium.

Allen detailed his coaching start as a high school coach in Florida in 1992 when his team had only 28 players, including freshmen. He coached at three more high schools before advancing to college at the Division II level in 2007. Indiana is his 11th stop.

“It's been a long journey, but it's been awesome,” Allen said. “My kids and my wife have sacrificed.”

Allen’s son, Thomas, is a linebacker for IU. He sustained a season-ending hip injury in Saturday’s victory over Michigan State.

“That's why it hurts so much for Thomas,” Allen said before tearing up and pausing for several seconds, “because I know what he's been through to get here.”

The same applies for the Hoosiers’ rise. Indiana (4-0) hasn’t been ranked this high since it was No. 4 in 1967, the year the program earned its only Rose Bowl trip. The Hoosiers have already beaten two of the other bluebloods in the Big Ten East in edging Penn State in overtime and rolling over Michigan.

Indiana knows that toppling Ohio State (3-0) is a far tougher challenge. The Hoosiers last beat the Buckeyes in 1988.

Indiana wide receiver Ty Fryfogle makes a catch behind Michigan State cornerback Shakur Brown.

Allen often talks to his team about wearing figurative earmuffs and blinders. It’s his way of stressing the importance of blocking out distractions. That is growing harder now that Indiana is the talk of the Big Ten. 

“Well, they just need to be a little bit thicker,” Allen said of the earmuffs. “As that noise grows louder, we have to continue to stay focused on what got us here and the process of improving.”

But Allen is probably not averse to having at least a little bit of the outside world seep in. He was asked about Ohio State opening as a 21-point favorite. That wasn’t news to him.

“We do talk about earmuffs, but I also understand reality, so, yes, it will be addressed,” Allen said.

“It's nothing other than just people's opinions about where they think their program is compared to our program, and where they think their team is compared to our team, and how they think the game is going to be decided on game day. It really means nothing. But it's the perceptual reality of where people see the program and where they see this game going.”

He said he will address the underdog status at some point this week. But it’s not as if the Hoosiers need more motivation.

“We’re used to being told that we don’t measure up,” he said.

For all of the Buckeyes’ domination of the Hoosiers, Ohio State has consistently voiced its respect for IU. The Hoosiers have given the Buckeyes tough games several times recently. But Indiana’s lack of depth and Ohio State’s superior talent has kept the Hoosiers from breaking through.

Indiana has now developed its players well enough that it believes it has sufficient depth. Its defense leads the Big Ten in turnovers and sacks. Dynamic quarterback Michael Penix Jr. leads the offense, aided by two top receivers in Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor.

A huge key, Allen said, will be whether Indiana’s lines on both sides of the ball can handle Ohio State’s. That has traditionally been a big advantage for the Buckeyes.

Allen has much respect for Ohio State, but he also didn’t sound as if his team will be awed by the Buckeyes.

“We're not playing the last 50 years of Ohio State players,” Allen said. “We're playing the 11 that are on the field at one time.

“That's our approach and we're going to walk off that field knowing that we prepared the best we could prepare and we played as hard as we could play. The team that plays the best on that day for more snaps is going to win, and that's our goal -- to be that team.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. throws a pass during the second half against Michigan State.

No. 9 Indiana at No. 3 Ohio State

When: noon Saturday

TV: Fox (WTTE, Channel 28)

Radio: WBNS FM/AM (97.1/1460)