Close call against Indiana shows much work remains for Ohio State football team
Ohio State’s path to an unprecedented fourth straight outright Big Ten title looks clearer than ever after its 42-35 victory over Indiana on Saturday.
But the No. 3 Buckeyes’ road to a more coveted championship – the College Football Playoff title -- looks murkier than it has all season.
There’s plenty of good news from Saturday. First, it was a victory over the toughest opponent Ohio State will play in the regular season. Indiana was ranked No. 9 and the Hoosiers showed with their resilience and offensive firepower that their success isn’t a fluke. A win over a top-10 team is always a good win.
With games left against Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan, the Buckeyes are prohibitive favorites to win the Big Ten East. Wisconsin’s loss to Northwestern makes the Wildcats the favorites in the West. As impressive as Northwestern has been, Wisconsin looked to be a more formidable opponent against Ohio State in a Big Ten title game.
Also encouraging is that Ohio State could survive Saturday despite three interceptions by Justin Fields and five Indiana sacks. Master Teague III ran for a career-high 169 yards. Add the carries by Fields and Trey Sermon and the Buckeyes ran for 307 yards, averaging 6.1 per carry even including the sacks.
Despite the interceptions, Fields did make some huge throws, aided by the wondrous talents of wide receivers Garrett Wilson (eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns) and Chris Olave (7 catches for 101 yards).
Ohio State’s run defense was suffocating. Indiana ran 16 times for minus-1 yard.
Now for the sobering side of things.
Saturday was the second straight game in which the Buckeyes defense collapsed in the second half and their offense had trouble making the plays to cement a victory. It was troubling that Rutgers scored four second-half touchdowns against Ohio State two weeks ago, though that could be discounted because those came a lineup sprinkled with backups.
Having Indiana do the same against Ohio State’s starters marks a trend, not a blip. Several Buckeye defensive backs were victimized as the Ohio State nearly blew a 35-7 lead.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. threw for five touchdowns and 491 yards. Ty Fryfogle, who had 219 receiving yards and three scores, compiled a highlight reel against the Buckeyes. Ohio State allowed a 16-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-10 play in which it left David Ellis wide open.
“We've got to get it fixed,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
If Indiana can light up the Buckeyes, what would Alabama or Clemson do to them? Ohio State measures itself against the best teams in the country, not just their Big Ten rivals. The Buckeyes must improve their pass defense if they’re to have a realistic chance for a national title.
Even the offense had its hiccups. It didn’t score in the fourth quarter when it could have put the game away. Ohio State had the ball at the Indiana 7 facing fourth-and-1 when Day decided to go for it with just under 5 minutes left and the Buckeyes ahead by a touchdown.
The safe thing would have been to kick a field goal to make it a two-possession game. But Day knew that freshman kicker Jake Seibert, subbing for the injured Blake Haubeil, missed a 44-yard field goal earlier.
“We've gone for it before in those situations and will continue to do that,” Day said. “Always want to be aggressive.”
But Fields, who made a bad read on his first interception and forced throws on his other two, threw high to tight end Luke Farrell for an incompletion.
“I didn’t play well at all,” said Fields, whose Heisman Trophy chances took a hit.
After playing so consistently well in his first 17 games as a Buckeye, Fields could be excused for having an off game by his high standards. (He did throw for 300 yards, it should be noted.)
“I think he tried to force it a little too much,” Day said. “But overall, I thought he played really gutsy. He made some big-time throws, and they were blitzing literally every snap.”
Day has every reason to believe Fields will bounce back. It’s not so clear about the pass defense, and the overall tendency for the Buckeyes to take their foot off the gas in the second half.
“Definitely not pleased,” Day said. “A long way from pleased. We've we got a ways to go. But we’ve played (only) four games and it's almost Thanksgiving so it's just very, very bizarre.”
Day tempered his mixed feelings with empathy for what his players are enduring just to play amid the pandemic.
“They haven’t seen their families in months,” he said. “When they leave the facility, they’re isolated in their room not allowed to go anywhere because of this virus. This family has stuck together.
That’s why, despite the problems, Day emphasized the positive.
“To be 4-0 after we weren’t even playing football a few months ago, I’m really proud of this team and the coaches,” he said.
No. 3 Ohio State at Illinois
When: noon Saturday
Radio: WBNS FM/AM (97.1/1460)