The challenges don't get any more daunting.
Indiana (4-3/2-1) heads to Columbus, Ohio, for a match-up with No. 1 Ohio State (7-0/3-0) tomorrow at noon. The Hoosiers' new-found confidence from their two-game Big Ten winning streak will be put the test against a team that features a Heisman Trophy frontrunner on offense (quarterback Troy Smith) and a defense that surrenders only 9.0 points/game.
Add in the fact the Buckeyes enter this game with a nation's best 14-game winning streak and the Hoosiers are 0-14 all-time against top-ranked teams, and Coach Terry Hoeppner's team has its work cut out for it if it hopes to make a game of it.
"It's a great challenge for us," said Charlie Emerson. "We need a great week of practice and to play the best we can play because we know we're going to get their best. They're not willing to relinquish their No. 1 ranking. But if we play like the last two weeks, it will be a great game."
One concern for the IU staff is how the young Indiana team will respond to one of the toughest environments in college football. Ohio Stadium will have more than 105,000 in attendance tomorrow, which could be a bit unsettling to youngsters such as redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Lewis.
But the Hoosier players realize they have a unique opportunity.
"As coach (Hoeppner) said, he wanted Ohio State to win last week so we'd play the No. 1 team in the country," Emerson said. "Playing the No. 1 team in the country, in Columbus, is something very few people get to do."
IU sophomore wideout James Hardy is excited about the challenge as well.
"If anything, (their No. 1 ranking) will give everyone more motivation to go out and work harder," Hardy said. "Ohio State is Ohio State, but for the most part I look at it as another game. For me personally, I just want to make sure everyone else is cool, calm, and poised and ready to give them a fight."
So can the up-and-coming Hoosiers do that? Has the Indiana rebuilding project reached the point that it can go into this sort of environment and play with the country's best college football team?
More than likely, the answer is still no. There's no doubt that a road win at Illinois and a home win over No. 13 Iowa suggest Hoeppner has IU headed in the right direction, but Ohio State likely has too much firepower on both sides of the ball. If anything, Indiana's recent run of success will have the Buckeyes focused on trying to take command of this game early.
Expect Kellen Lewis to pose some problems for the Buckeyes with his athleticism, but OSU has a slew of its own weapons in tailback Antonio Pittman, Smith and wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. They also work behind an offensive line that averages 6-6 and 315 pounds, giving them a huge edge over the IU defensive front.
HoosierNation.com Prediction: Ohio State 41, Indiana 17
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