In 2020, Ohio State led Indiana 35-7 at halftime and it appeared that the Buckeyes would run away with a victory in a top 10 matchup.
But, the Hoosiers hit on big plays and bottled up the Buckeyes’ explosive offense to make the score 42-35 and had an opportunity to tie the game, possessing the ball with 34 seconds remaining in the contest. Ohio State held firm, forcing a fumble to close out the game, but the memory of that near comeback still sticks with the program a year later.
Head coach Ryan Day said that game left a bad taste in his mouth, despite the winning result.
“We just didn’t do a very good job of finishing the game. We went up big early in the game,” Day said. “We got to play like we did in that first half and continue to play a full 60 minutes. We’ve never really been in a game with Indiana where we didn’t have to play for four quarters. We’re going to have to do that again on Saturday night.”
Shifting focus to this year’s iteration of the Hoosiers, head coach Tom Allen’s bunch have failed to live up to their lofty expectations heading into the season. Indiana entered the 2021 campaign ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP poll, but have limped out of the gates to a 2-4 start — one win coming against lowly Western Kentucky 33-31.
Although the Hoosiers were expected to contend for the Big Ten East crown, they’ve been unable to contend against the cream of the crop. All four of their losses have come against current top 15 teams, dropping these games by a combined total of 116-45.
Despite the slow start from the Hoosiers, Day emphasized that Indiana provides a challenge for his squad.
“They always play us tough. Always have a really good scheme and plays hard,” Day said. “You got to play four quarters against Indiana. We’re going to have to plan on doing that.”
Indiana’s slow start has been compounded by injuries to its offense and defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Hoosiers will be without redshirt junior quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and graduate transfer wide receiver D.J. Matthews Jr., further hurting an ailing passing game that ranks seventh in the Big Ten with 215 yards per game.
Filling in for Penix is redshirt junior quarterback Jack Tuttle — who was recruited by Day and played quarterback for Buckeye wide receiver Chris Olave in high school. There is also the potential that true freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley could get some snaps in running situations.
In his first start of the season, Tuttle struggled against Michigan State — going 28-for-52 for 188 yards and two interceptions.
On defense, Indiana may be without First Team All-American and junior defensive back Tiawan Mullen, who has missed the last two weeks due to injury. Senior defensive back Reese Taylor’s status is also up in the air, according to Allen.
“Well, I think they’ve had some injuries. They’re trying to fill those gaps a little bit, though. I’m sure they’ll be getting some guys back here healthy,” Day said. “When you combine all those things, when you’re off by a little bit here or there, a team that maybe doesn’t have a great record is a lot better than you think. I think this team is much better than their record indicates.”
In the second half of last season’s game, the Hoosiers employed various blitzing packages to slow the Ohio State offense — allowing Indiana to rack up five sacks.
Senior linebacker Micah McFadden — a First-Team All-Big Ten selection — is a staple in the Hoosiers’ blitzing attack. McFadden led the Big Ten in sacks in 2020 with six.
With attention to Indiana’s aggressive defensive attack, Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said they’re keying in on the Hoosiers’ ability to create pressure.
“We’ve been focusing on that. Even starting last week and the off week, of all the pressures because they do it on a lot of different fronts,” Studrawa said. “They bring everybody. They’ll bring linebackers, they’ll bring corners, they’ll bring safeties. They do it all, so we’ve been mindful of that.”
While the Hoosiers are aggressive on defense, it hasn’t worked for them in 2021. Indiana allows 26.8 points per game, the second-worst mark in the conference.
With Indiana down on its luck throughout the first half of the season, Ohio State comes into the primetime matchup well rested following its bye week.
“I thought we had a good week of practice, good energy this week. But now we have to go put it on the field,” Day said. “We prepare, we compete and then we learn.”
The Buckeyes picked up momentum in the three weeks prior to their bye week — scoring more than 50 points while holding opponents to less than 20 in each of those games.
With a newfound confidence, Day emphasized that the team has turned a corner after a difficult start to the season.
“I think that they start to see themselves playing better. They’re starting to believe in the guy next to them. They’re starting to believe in themselves. Anytime you can do that, that’s exciting and it brings energy,” Day said. “So we got to pick up from where we left off a couple weeks ago and it starts with a great week of practice. I can tell you probably midway through the week how it’s going to go based on how we practice. The good news is our guys believe right now.”
The Buckeyes and Hoosiers kick off at 7:30 p.m. in Bloomington, Indiana, and will be televised on ABC.