BLOOMINGTON, Ind. --- It's been quite awhile since Indiana has played in such a highly-anticipated football game. Saturday's matchup with top-ranked Ohio State certainly qualfies as that.
The Hoosiers are 4-0 for the first time since 1990, and the Buckeyes roll into town as the defending national champions and the preseason favorite to do it again. The game will be nationally televised in the 3:30 p.m. slot on ABC, and Indiana says it is nearing a sell out at Memorial Stadium. Indiana fans lobbied ESPN to have College GameDay come to Bloomington this week, and while they didn't succeed, local radio host and former interim IU basketball coach Dan Dakich will host his own live show at the stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The spotlight is on the Hoosiers this week, an unusual experience for a program that hasn't reached a bowl game under Kevin Wilson. The pressure is significant for a team used to playing its games in front of a half-empty stadium, but Wilson feels the Hoosiers are focused on Saturday's game and nothing else.
"If we don't have a good performance this week, it won't be because we're getting ahead of ourselves," Wilson said on Tuesday's Big Ten teleconfernece. "We've very blessed to be 4-0, but we have a lot of improvement we have to make."
On paper, Ohio State (4-0) is something of an all-star team. The Buckeyes have an embarrassment of riches, bringing back nearly every significant contributor from last year's championship team while adding perhaps the best recruiting class in the country. They have three guys that could start at quarterback for nearly every team in the country, and now one plays receiver (Braxton Miller).
But football isn't played on paper, and Ohio State has looked quite vulnerable at times this season. The Buckeyes survived a slight scare from Northern Illinois with an ugly 20-13 win two weeks ago, a game in which starting quarterback Cardale Jones was removed in the first half after throwing two interceptions. Ohio State had 136 passing yards and three interceptions in that game.
Urban Meyer has a remarkable amount of talent at the quarterback position, sure, but I'm still not sure that situation has been figured out. Jones remains the starter for the Buckeyes, a move Meyer likely had to make since he chose him as the opening day starter, but the playoff hero from last year has had his share of struggles against relatively weak competition. Jones has completed 57 percent of his passes for 622 yards in three and a half games, with four touchdowns and four interceptions. He has thrown for over 200 yards just once.
Combine Jones' early-season issues with Indiana's relative success against Ohio State last year, and the Hoosiers have reason to feel rather confident heading into Saturday's game, something you could hardly ever say in this David vs. Goliath matchup of programs on two completely different levels. Meyer is working to build a dynasty in Columbus, and Wilson is trying to get the Hoosiers to a bowl game.
And yet, with a skinny freshman quarterback (Zander Diamont), the Hoosiers went to Ohio Stadium and led the eventual national champion until late in the third quarter. Ohio State eventually won that game 42-27, but there will be a couple key differences this year: Nate Sudfeld is back, and Indiana is playing at home.
Wilson says his team has looked at last year's game on a basic level, but says the Hoosiers can't draw a whole lot from that late-season matchup.
"Last year, Ohio State was off, and they helped us out a little bit," Wilson said. "They played so much better as they finished last year."
From the Ohio State side, there has been nothing but respect for Wilson and his program this week. Meyer said he studied WIlson and his offensive schemes while Wilson was the offensive coordinator at Northwestern from 1999-2001.
"I did study him, I did visit with him. We share similar philosophies, and he's adapted over the years, too," Meyer said on Tuesday's Big Ten teleconference. "When he went to Oklahoma, we played him in the national championship game. We're friends. I admire him as a coach and I think he's doing a great job."
There's some reason to believe that Saturday's highly-anticipated game could be closer than many national experts think, but like I said earlier, the Hoosiers aren't used to playing in these games. The Buckeyes are. Will that matter? We'll see. But after last year's close call and Indiana's hot start, you can bet Ohio State won't overlook the Hoosiers.
"They're solid. They give it their all every time they play us," said Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry. "I know their defense does some things too that can give offenses a little bit of trouble. They just come out ready to go, and that's something we have to do."