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No joke, No. 9 Indiana likely will be toughest regular-season opponent for Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

So here it is, the toughest game of Ohio State’s 2020 regular season.

Indiana.

Indiana?

Not since 1988 have the Hoosiers beaten Ohio State, and the Buckeyes are 20-point favorites on Saturday.

Las Vegas and history might portend little chance for an upset, but the truth is that on paper the Hoosiers will pose the stiffest test for the No. 3 Buckeyes until Big Ten championship week. Ohio State’s final three opponents — Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan — are a combined 3-9.

Indiana is 4-0 and ranked No. 9. Not since 1993 have both teams been ranked when they’ve played.

The Hoosiers have often played Ohio State tough in recent years. But their lack of depth, and probably their lack of belief, kept them from pulling off the upset. Coach Tom Allen believes he now has the bodies in his fourth year, and his irrepressible personality has instilled a change in attitude.

Playing against Indiana and athletic quarterback MIchael Penix Jr. has been no walk in the park this season, as Michigan and other traditional Big Ten powers have learned.

“Indiana has been a good, solid football program for a while now,” Ohio State center Josh Myers said. “You could kind of see this coming where they had a breakout year like this, so I’m not really surprised, to be honest with you.”

Michael Penix Jr. has Indiana football rolling 

Indiana has flourished this year thanks to a dynamic offense led by left-handed quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and an opportunistic defense that leads the Big Ten in turnovers.

“I think Indiana has an outstanding team,” Ohio State defensive co-coordinator Greg Mattison said. “It’s the best team we’ve played so far. I really believe that.”

Buckeye football:Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is avoiding interceptions. Can he against Indiana?

Penix was injured for Ohio State’s 51-10 victory in Bloomington last year. His development and a strong receiving corps led by Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor will pose a serious challenge to a Buckeyes secondary that has endured some growing pains.

“I think we’ll find out in this game,” Mattison said when asked about the Buckeyes’ readiness.

OSU had extra week to prepare for IU

Ohio State (3-0) has had extra time to prepare because of the cancellation of last week’s game at Maryland, and Mattison said the last week and a half has been the best the defensive backs have looked.

“They seem like they’re really, really coming together and really starting to get it,” he said. “The thing that has to happen with secondaries is you need a whole group of guys playing (together). You can’t just be one guy out there, and that’s what this group I think has done. They’re really improving.”

Ohio State’s offense must be able to adjust to Indiana’s blitzing scheme, which has contributed to 10 interceptions. Because of their offensive potency, the Buckeyes are accustomed to defenses that give different looks in hopes of causing confusion. Indiana does it better than most.

“They blitz a lot and really don’t have a lot of tendencies,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It’s hard to figure out where they’re coming from.”

That’ll be on quarterback Justin Fields, the offensive line and running backs to decipher. Establishing balance with the OSU run game would help keep the Hoosiers’ off-balance.

For Indiana, a victory would probably be the biggest in program history. For Ohio State, it’s just another game in which it knows an upstart will take its biggest swing. Unlike past meetings, this Hoosiers team might have the punching power to be a real threat.

“It’s like that every game for us,” Day said. “Whether somebody is 4-0 or 0-4, we have to win every game here, so every game is big. But when Indiana is playing the way they are right now, it’s certainly a little bit different. This is a major challenge for us.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch