COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State hasn’t lost to Indiana since 1988, but the Hoosiers have given the Buckeyes more than their share of problems during Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State.
Indiana very nearly pulled off the upset last year in Bloomington, failing to capitalize off a first-and-goal situation in the final minute of a 34-27 loss to the Buckeyes. After a loss to Wake Forest on Sept. 24, the Hoosiers bounced back the following week with a 24-21 overtime win over Michigan State that showed they can match up against Top 25 teams.
To learn more about Ohio State’s fifth opponent of the season, we’ve turned to Zach Osterman of the Indianapolis Star to get the Indiana point of view. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZachOsterman and you can read his work here.
Q: We’ll obviously find out more in a couple days, but just how good is this Indiana team?
Osterman: Definitely better than your average IU team. Probably not quite as good as last year’s team, which went to the Pinstripe Bowl, but I think the potential is there for IU to be better than 2015 eventually. The defense is significantly improved, though I think this weekend is something of a litmus test in that regard. The offense has taken a couple of understandable steps back, but it’s had one- or two-quarter stretches that look as dominant as last season. If the Hoosiers can figure out how to stitch more of those together, they could be pretty good, I think.
Q: In what areas or at what positions does Indiana have a chance to have success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Osterman: I think the best place would be the passing game. Indiana needs to be balanced on offense, but if the Hoosiers are going to hurt Ohio State, my guess is that it will have to be with Richard Lagow’s arm, primarily. Even with Simmie Cobbs’ injury, IU has a strong stable of receivers and backs who can kick out of the backfield, and when the Hoosiers have hit those briefly dominant stretches, it’s been largely through the air. Still, easier said than done against that secondary, for obvious reasons.
Q: Indiana hasn’t been great in the red zone this season. Is anything at the root of that problem?
Osterman: Finishing drives is something the Hoosiers struggled with some last year too. I think they’re still figuring out what works best for Lagow in those short-yardage situations, and the loss of two redshirt senior offensive linemen – Dan Feeney (concussion) and Dimitric Camiel (back surgery) – hasn’t helped the power side of the run game. At the same time, Indiana also got a lot better at this particular issue as 2015 progressed, so there’s every reason to think it can be that way again. Camiel is probably out long-term, and Feeney is out until he’s symptom-free, with his recovery now moving on three weeks. IU’s backups are good, but it’s still part of the issue.
Q: How do Indiana fans feel about Kevin Wilson, and has that shifted at all this season?
Osterman: I think they’re generally confident in and pleased with Wilson. The bowl game last year helped, as has a three-game win streak against Purdue (the longest such streak since 1947). Not to be flippant, but while they’re passionate, IU football fans can also handle reality. They understand that progress for Indiana football has to come with patience. Controlling the Purdue series was a good start. Last year’s bowl berth marked tangible progress. I think the Michigan State win – whether the Spartans turn out to be in a slight down cycle or not – was the kind of statement home victory both Wilson and fans had craved for the last two or three years. I would say he’s pretty popular right now, perhaps as popular as he’s ever been.
Q: What are the expectations around the program both for this game and the rest of the season as a whole?
Osterman: For this game – or any game at the Horseshoe – I think fans are understandably pragmatic. I wouldn’t expect Indiana itself to come in expecting to roll over. The Hoosiers have given Ohio State a bit of a battle the last few times they’ve played them, and everything I’ve read and heard suggests respect between the programs is very much a two-way street between Wilson and Urban Meyer. But if Indiana is competitive in Columbus this weekend and loses with respect, I don’t think it’s going to dampen excitement or momentum much.
As for the season, the Michigan State win really reignited bowl aspirations in this group. If they can get out of Ohio State without any serious injury or embarrassment, then the last seven games (Nebraska, at Northwestern, Maryland, at Rutgers, Penn State, at Michigan, Purdue) include a bunch of manageable opportunities for wins, and a second consecutive bowl berth.
Q: What’s your prediction?
Osterman: Always tough to do a score prediction. I think so long as IU runs the ball with any effectiveness, protects Lagow and hangs onto the football, the Hoosiers should score a few points. And defensively, they are undoubtedly improved. That said, this is by far the best team they’ve seen, and quite possibly the best they’ll see, all year. I can’t see anything but an Ohio State win, though I could very well see Indiana keeping it respectable, 44-30, 38-28, something like that. Don’t see IU winning, but would also be surprised if IU really got run out of town (looking at you, Rutgers).