By Arnie Leshin
Indiana is probably best known for Johnny Carson, Bob Knight, the Indy 500 and Notre Dame. As for the state’s Indiana University football, no way Indy.
But just like that, after ages of failing on the gridiron, the program has risen to new heights, has won its first four starts, is holy Hoosier, ranked ninth in the national polls, and, oh my, arrives in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday to face the mighty, 3rd-ranked Ohio State juggernaut led by All-America quarterback, Heisman Trophy candidate, Justin Fields, the flashy 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior.
There’s more to this Buckeye team than Fields, but on offense, he runs the show. Year-by-year they are near the top of the charts, and are now 3-0 against a disappointing trio of Rutgers, Penn State and Nebraska, with the three combining for a 2-9 record. And now comes its biggest test of this coronavirus pandemic campaign, Indiana.
Yes, Indiana, which hasn’t played any tougher of a schedule, 4-0 versus the Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State foursome with a 3-14 record. No matter, the Hoosiers are sky-high, have a top-notch quarterback in 6-3, 218 sophomore Michael Peniz, Jr., a running game that features 6-2, 230 junior workhorse Stu Scott III, and with an athletic wide receiver in 6-2, 205 junior Ty Fryfogle.
Defensively, their main strength comes from aggressiveness from their line that pursues the quarterbacks and forces turnovers, which already number an even dozen.
But it’s biggest obstacle through the years has been Ohio State. Since the Hoosiers entered the Big Ten in 1899 and the Buckeyes in 1912, the two have met 93 times and it hasn’t been close. The Buckeyes have won 76 of them, Indiana 12, and there have been five ties. The last time Indy won was 31-10 in 1987 and that followed a
41-7 triumph the previous year. Oh, the 1990 final resulted in a 27-27 deadlock.
The Hoosiers even won the initial game in 1901,18-6, but after that it’s been many mismatches that brought Ohio State romps, and despite Indy’s surprising start, it takes the field as a, would you believe, a 21-point underdog.
Surely, for a program looking for respect, this could go a long way to create the upset. It’s on the road, yes, but don’t expect the usual Buckeye overflowing crowd in these times of COPID-19.
And that should help Indiana, which hasn’t been in this position in who knows when. Still, it will have to contend with Fields, who has directed the option with a high-scoring passing game, but has also been intercepted five times, and that could work to the Hoosiers’ advantage if they can put the rush on Fields, who has thrown for 10 touchdowns and run for three. If not, it could be a long afternoon for the visitors.
Offensively, Penix, Jr., from Tampa, Fla., has been super. He has passed for 170, 248, 342, and 320 yards to go with 14 touchdowns through the air and four run in by him. The running game has shown balance, with Scott upping his first-game total of 57 yards to 282 over the last three tilts. Wally Philyor, a 5-11, 177 senior also from Tampa, came away with 137 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns in the season-opening 36-35 overtime win over Penn State, but its been speedy and glue-fingered Fryfogle averaging 175 yards per game and scoring seven TDs.
But the odds are what they are, and if Indiana wants respect, it will have to defy them and depart from Buckeye Stadium in the win column. If it sounds much too much of a feat, it’s still 0-0 before the 10 a.m. scheduled kickoff on the FOX network.