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Game Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

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O-H ... N-O

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0, #2 F/+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (4-0, #78 F/+)

When? Saturday, 10/3, 3:30 PM, Bloomington, Indiana

Channel? ABC / WatchESPN

Vegas? INDIANA +21

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Indiana begins conference play with a trial by fire, or perhaps more accurately, a trial by fire in which you are trapped in a room that is being consumed from the outside by flamethrowers and if you somehow manage to escape the hellstorm into another room, well GUESS WHAT it's on fire too. The whole dang house is on fire.

GRANTED, last season Indiana successfully evaded incineration for almost three quarters before FIRE MAN JALIN MARSHALL decided to scorch the earth to the tune of 4 touchdowns in the second half. (Note: FIRE MAN means a man made of fire, not to be confused with fireman, someone who puts out a fire. This distinction is important.)

On the heels of a giant grassroots movement (that ultimately fell short) to bring College GameDay to Bloomington, the positivity around the program is reaching heights it hasn't seen since Austin Starr kicked the Hoosiers to their first bowl game in an eternity back in 2007. The undefeated start has given the Hoosiers the kind of breathing room they haven't experienced in a very long time, as non-conference hiccups heavily reduced Indiana's margin for error in Big Ten play to the point of being unable to reach six wins, long the pinnacle of a program desperately seeking momentum.

With eight conference games left to play, Indiana needs to record a 2-6 record to qualify, though we would hope and expect for better. Few counted on a victory against Ohio State when they looked at the schedule to start the season and traced the path to six wins, but the undefeated start has started to change minds and attitudes. Others have referred to Indiana's 4-0 start "fraudulent," but even the most fraudulent 4-0 start in college football is still a team with four wins and zero losses.

THE OPPONENT: (#7 S&P, #33 Offense, #6 Defense)

THE HOOSIERS: (#69 (nice) S&P, #25 Offense, #101 Defense)

An early narrative in the season is that Ohio State's offense is struggling, and while that may be true to an extent, they've only failed to clear 35 points once (against Northern Illinois, the 30th-best defense in the country) and their S&P ranking puts them a mere eight spots behind Indiana. So make no mistake: on paper, Indiana is still overmatched on this side of the ball, this is the second-best offense they've faced all year (behind Western Kentucky, really). The Buckeyes are slightly more efficient on the ground than through the air, led by Ezekiel Elliot and his 455 yards rushing. He's the workhorse for that backfield, as the the next closest running back on the team has only 7 carries. Quarterback Cardale Jones and quarterback-turned-lightning-bolt Braxton Miller are second and third in rushing attempts and yards.

There's a lot of different ways this Ohio State team can come after you, with top-notch playmakers at every position, Indiana simply can't zero in on one thing and make the Buckeyes beat them some other way. Loading up the box for Ezekiel Elliot simply gives Miller and 6'3" junior wide receiver Michael Thomas more room to make plays, and staying back in coverage will invite the Buckeyes to run all over a front seven that will likely be missing their keystone, Darius Latham, as he remains indefinitely suspended.

Success for Indiana will have to come from disguise, both quarterbacks that Ohio State has used this season have shown a penchant for turnovers in the early going (TD:INT ratio of 1:1 for both quarterbacks), so they're far from impervious to making mistakes. If Indiana can bait the signal caller into a couple bad throws at opportune times, it may not matter how many yards they give up otherwise.

The biggest concern for the Indiana defense has to come from Cardale Jones' mobility. For a team that struggled to finish tackles on Wake Forest's Kendall Hinton (6'0", 185), the 6'5", 250 pound bulldozer-cannon for the Buckeyes presents a far more daunting challenge. I would expect the Hoosiers to dial up some disguised pressure in an effort to confuse the quarterbacks, but if the pass rush is unable to finish the play, Jones (or Barrett) can break the pocket and make throws downfield. For example, this play from Week 1 (at 0:18):

That is horrifying. He throws a missile 40 yards downfield off his DANG BACK FOOT. This guy is a video game create-a-player with every skill amped way up, even the ones you don't typically think of as necessary for a quarterback. Not to mention the receiver twisting away from being blatantly interfered with and laying out to make the catch. Someone pulls something like this online and your Xbox controller goes through the TV. Imagine having to deal with that in real life. That said, it's not like Cardale Jones is the only guy to nail a throw like that this year on the road in the ACC. (Also, at 0:18)

DEAL WITH THAT, BUCKEYES.

There's a lot of ways to win a football game, but most versions of the universe where Indiana wins this game involve the offense scoring a lot of points to keep pace with Ohio State and getting a couple big defensive plays late. Fortunately, Indiana has already done that a couple times this year. Unfortunately, it came against FCS-level Southern Illinois and Florida International-level Florida International. While the level of difficulty may not be the same, maybe the familiarity of winning this type of game will help the Hoosiers keep their confidence up.

Ohio State's defense is one of the best in the nation, #2 in the country against the pass, and a little leakier against the run (#35). I would expect Indiana to lean on Jordan Howard early and often to help keep the offense on schedule, along with a lot of single-read quick throws to get Nate Sudfeld in a rhythm and keep his shirt clean. Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington will be a tremendous test for an offensive line that has been positively lights out through the first third of the season, and getting the ball out quick could neutralize their effectiveness and force some adjustments that might help the Hoosiers hit some big plays later in the game.

THE GAME

I think Indiana has a good team, I think Indiana is in store for a good season, I think Ohio State is still a very tough test for this Indiana squad and that's not a bad thing. Ohio State is a very tough test for every team in the country at the moment and it's not like a loss, even a bad one, would (or should) derail the Hoosiers from what they're trying to achieve this year. It doesn't help Indiana's cause that they've somewhat snuck up on the Buckeyes in two of the last three meetings, coupled with all the fanfare surrounding Indiana's 4-0 start, I would expect to have Ohio State's full attention.

I hate to drag a basketball analog into football, but this isn't unlike when #1 Kentucky came to Assembly Hall and walked out with a loss. Indiana basketball was coming out of a rebuild and had put together an undefeated non-conference schedule, but had yet to play anyone of note prior to that game. Very few people gave Indiana any chance to hang with Kentucky, let alone win the game, and we all know how that ended. In much the same way, I think Indiana scores as time expires and hits a big two-point conversion ...

... for a terrific backdoor cover. 42-28, Buckeyes.