Well, that one didn’t come quite as easily as some expected.
Ohio State, a three-touchdown favorite, eked out a 42-35 home victory with Indiana coming up short despite closing a 35-7 second-half deficit to make it a one-score game with the ball in the final minute. Ryan Day’s team avoided catastrophe and, with plenty of things to work on in the remainder of the regular season, will head into the upcoming week as an unbeaten team that still controls its own College Football Playoff destiny.
“We got a ways to go,” Day said. “But we’ve played four games. It’s almost Thanksgiving. So it’s just very, very bizarre, and there’s just so much that has gone into this season, that these kids have been through, that to the average person, they don’t quite get that part of it, they wouldn’t understand. But when you’re in an environment like this, when there’s no fans and you have to bring your own energy, it’s just a different dynamic and I think that’s why you’re seeing so much strange things that have gone on this year. Not making any excuses, I’m just calling it for what it is.
“We have to keep growing and get better and learn to adapt to this environment, and it seems to me like whatever the reason is, the last two weeks, we haven’t been able to finish that. We came out and scored right out of the gate the second half, I was jacked up, I thought we were going to run away with it. We didn’t. So we got to coach better and we got to execute better.”
From the jump, Day was ecstatic with how his team played. He saw the energy he hoped for combined with the execution he wanted. That led to the Buckeyes jumping out to a three-touchdown lead by halftime and four-touchdown lead early in the third quarter.
Yet once again, in a sequence that has become all too familiar to Ohio State, Indiana closed the gap in the second half before the Buckeyes could put Tom Allen’s team away.
“I'm not sure what happens, but coach Day was just talking about it to us in the locker room,” Justin Fields said. “We just have to start finishing teams. We get up on teams and we just have to throw (down) the pedal and finish them. We're going to work on it at practice. I don't know how we do that. We've just got to have focus the entire game. So I think that's what we have to do. That's what we have to focus on. Like I said before, like I'm going to keep saying, we have to continue to get better each and every day at practice.”
“I don’t think there’s a different change, I think we just gave up big plays more in the second half than we did in the first half,” Tommy Togiai said. “They got a couple long passes in the second half that we need to get better at, get some more pressure and get the guys covered and get them on the ground. And I think tackling too, missed some tackles, especially in the second half. But I don’t think we had the same mindset we had in the first half. There was just some big plays that we need to come out.”
Some of the issues were on offense considering Ohio State scored only once – an interception returned for a touchdown – in the game’s final 27 minutes. The final six offensive drives ended with an interception, punt, missed field goal, punt, turnover on downs and punt.
Indiana’s relentless pass rush got home five times for sacks of Fields and made things difficult on the Buckeyes.
“It's probably one of the most that we've done that since I've been here,” said Master Teague when asked about pass protection. “This week, we worked a lot on that. We knew that they were going to be coming hard, and they did. I've never been part of a game where they blitzed that much. I think it was a good experience just getting down and dirty and getting in the gritty of the game. I wish some of those things didn't happen, some of those sacks, but I'm just glad we came out with the victory and Justin's feeling good.”
But the majority of errors happened with the Hoosiers tearing through Ohio State’s secondary.
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. accounted for 491 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, and wide receiver Ty Fryfogle grabbed seven of them for 218 yards and three scores. They both nearly recorded more yards than anybody ever before them had versus the Buckeyes.
“We had a couple blown coverages,” Wade said. “The one with 10 outside, that was a blown coverage. There was a couple, we just had blown coverages and sometimes they just make a play. That’s a part of playing football. Receivers gonna make plays, DBs gonna make plays.”
“It's a thing that coach Coombs teaches us that he's got on the board – snap and clear,” Wade said. “So whatever happens on that play, you just snap and clear and go to the next play. That's how we do it.”
How did Day evaluate how the secondary played?
“I think a little inconsistent,” Day said. “There was some big plays there. I thought Shaun Wade’s pick-six was huge. That was a big, big play. Any time you get a defensive score like that, that was big. I thought when our defense got those stops after the interceptions in sudden change, that was really, really big. And I also thought, I think it was Marcus Hooker, there was a big play, we got them down, we created the fumble at the end of the half, going to two-minute drill and score right there, that was huge as well. But there was big plays.”
Wade’s interception returned for touchdown happened when the Buckeyes needed a spark late in the third quarter. It extended their lead to 21 points.
“The pick six, I just watching film knew it was coming,” Wade said. “They run outside on that bunch, so I knew it was coming.”
Ohio State managed not to wilt when the game came down to the Hoosiers with the ball in the final minute. They went 12 yards on seven plays with it all ending on a multi-lateral play that went a grand total of seven yards.
Despite the points allowed, Togiai said his side of the ball felt good when it headed onto the field with 38 seconds remaining and the game on the line.
“That's a defense's dream right there,” Togiai said. “Go out there and win the game. A sack or anything. Make big plays. That's kind of the moments you live for. Able to rise to the occasion.”
The biggest positive for Ohio State? Its run defense.
The Hoosiers recorded minus-1 yards on 16 carries. Their two starting running backs combined to pick up 16 yards on 10 rushes.
“Good news is, we obviously stopped the run,” Day said. “There was no run game at all, it was all passing. So yeah, going to go back, watch the film and kinda figure out where these issues are that are creating these big plays. Because when you stop with the big plays, then you’ll be in pretty good shape. But that’s a part of playing great defense, and we got to get that changed.”
Altogether, this wasn’t the Buckeyes’ best day defensively. Not by a long shot.
Does it diminish the expectations for this defense going forward? Not so fast, Wade says. He believes Ohio State “definitely” has a championship-worthy defense.
“If you just go from the first half, that was a championship defense,” Wade said. “It’s the second half, and it’s just not the defense, it’s the team in total in the second half. We got to find ways to put points on the board, we got to find ways to stop missing field goals, we got to find ways to stop them on defense in the second half, and that’s been all our games from game one to now.”
“We just got to keep getting better,” Browning said. “I don’t know what to say to that question. You just got to look at the film and correct the errors. I feel like a lot was just miscommunication maybe or thinking somebody else had that certain part of a coverage or whatever the case may be. One little misstep or miscommunication, you get an explosive play like that.”
Even with the defensive miscues and Fields tossing a trio of interceptions, the Buckeyes will waltz into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center with an unblemished record. For that, they’re thankful.
“It's always good when you get a win,” Togiai said. “It's hard to win in the Big Ten and always hard to just get a win in general. We're going to celebrate it tomorrow and today and then look on to Illinois.”
“We knew Indiana was going to be a hard team to play,” Browning said. “I mean, they play us hard every year. They're a great team, got a great quarterback. It was definitely a big win. I just feel like we've got to keep taking it one game at a time because we've still got Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan. It's the Big Ten. We've just got to take it one game at a time and not try to look forward.”