It was supposed to be their last true test before Michigan. Unfortunately for Michigan State, the Buckeyes turned it into a rout. Aside from an early fumble by Chris Wells, the Spartans never really had another legitimate shot to score until the game was already decided.
The Buckeye defense, spurred on by coaches who felt they were not playing with enough emotion, looked like King's Island's Beast coming down the first hill. Excluding the final drive for Michigan State, when Ohio State had their second and even third string players in the game, the Buckeyes allowed just 129 yards on the day. Stanton was hurried, harried, and twice knocked out of the game – the second time for good. J. Caulcrick couldn't get enough steam up to power a kiddy toy, let along his locomotive style rushing attack; he finished with just 45 yards on 15 attempts. Toss in an interception and four sacks, and the Buckeye defenders had a solid performance.
The key will be to repeat and even increase that dominance, and they know it.
"Our defense has a long way to go," said senior defensive end Jay Richardson. "We're getting towards some of our goals. I think we're probably playing better than some people expected us to be but for us that's not good enough. Our goal wasn't to be better than what you guys thought. Our goal is to try to be the best. We have a lot of improvement as far as keeping teams yards down. I think we did a better job last week, and we are still pretty solid in scoring defense so that's good."
Ask any defender or any coach what could stand improvement, and they will look at you as if you grew a third eyeball in your forehead.
Said coach Tressel when asked, "Everything we do. I can't say to you that there's anything that we can say, ‘I hope we stay the same,' because everything we'd like to get a little better."
Against this backdrop, a game Indiana squad will enter the Horseshoe with upset on its mind. That sounds like a laugher until one considers this is a team who last week pulled a stunner against Iowa; the Hawkeyes were widely expected to challenge for third place in the conference behind Ohio State and Michigan.
According to coach Tressel, "As we turn our sights toward Indiana, you've all seen what they've done, especially the last couple weeks. Coach Hoeppner missed a little time in the beginning of their season, and it might have been reflected in their play. As you watch them on film, I think they're a lot like their coach. They're tough. They're courageous. They go as hard as they can possibly go. They don't care what anyone thinks about their chances. They just play and play and play. And it's fun to watch them on film because they do it with great effort. And I think as I watch their defense that they're probably doing a few less things than they did a month ago and doing them much, much better."
Trailing 21-7 at home, the Hoosiers refused to quit. As the Hawkeyes battered and beleaguered lineup continued to lose players, Indiana continued to press. By halftime the score was nearly even at 21-17. Late in the third quarter, the Hoosiers moved ahead 24-21 on a 23 yard touchdown pass from Kellen Lewis to James Hardy. Iowa reclaimed the lead momentarily but Indiana rose to the challenge with another Lewis to Hardy score. A late interception of Iowa's Drew Tate sealed the game and the party was on for the Hoosiers.
The party now is over, but you can bet the Hoosiers have the full attention of the Buckeyes after seeing what they can do.
"Any time someone beats a quality opponent you take them seriously," said safety Brandon Mitchell. "You get a little more revved up for the game because you know Iowa is a great team. If they can be Iowa, they can definitely come in here and beat us."
Lest anyone scoff, one would do well to remember head coach Terry Hoeppner's Miami Redhawk teams went 48-35 without a single losing season. His 4-7 record in 2005 was both his first mark under .500 and his first year at Indiana. Still building, he and his squad are already sitting at 4-3 with an eye on making a bowl.
"They're a pretty good team – better than a lot of people give them credit for," Mitchell continued. "I was just watching the film on them, and they have some really talented guys over there. They are not the Indiana of old. They are a great team."
Obviously, it starts with coaching for Indiana, but they also have a budding star at quarterback in redshirt freshman Kellen Lewis. Sitting at a 53 percent completion ratio, 1,138 yards, and only 5 touchdowns to his 3 interceptions – the statistics can be deceiving. He hasn't turned the ball over through the air in three weeks and against the Hawkeyes was 19-15, for 255 yards three touchdowns passing and a score with his legs. By way of comparison, Ohio State's Troy Smith was 16-25 for 186 yards and four touchdowns when the Buckeyes played in Iowa City.
"He has a very impressive arm more than his legs, but he does have real quick feet," said Richardson in describing Lewis. "He can scramble out of pocket. They run a lot of boots with him – a lot of quarterback keeps. They like to get him out on the perimeter where he can make moves. He is similar to Troy in a lot of aspects as far as his legs. He has a good arm. Obviously he does not have the maturity of Troy because he is a freshman. He could be(come) Troy like."
Linebacker Curtis Terry added, "We have to make sure to contain him. He has a very good arm, is accurate, can throw it on the run, and he can make plays kind of like Troy. We're just going to have to be at our best to make sure we have sound technique and do everything correctly."
Even if he falls short of such lofty praise, Lewis is no joke.
Said Hoeppner of his development, "The game has slowed down for him - all of a sudden the things that were a blur to him, you feel as if they have slowed down. It's the pre-read; it's experience, but it's probably mostly the understanding of the offense and what the other guys are doing. Now that we have a lot of great tape to study, you start getting a feel for what people are going to do. It's just a process that you have to go through, which is why more experienced players play better than those who are less experienced."
Tressel echoed the sentiments, "He does a good job of keeping things alive, and when you keep things alive, that's huge. The thing Gene Smith mentioned to me, after he watched a good bit of the game this weekend, that he was amazed at the poise such a young guy had. In a tough, hard-fought game, the thing that's impressive to me is they're down 23-7 to Ball State and win. They're down 25-7 against Illinois and they win. And they're down 21-7 to Iowa and they win. That tells me somebody's got to have some poise and usually it starts with the guy that's got his hands on the ball all the time. So the little bit that I've watched him, he does a nice job of keeping things alive and he's very accurate and he uses his weapons. I think they've got outstanding weapons."
As Tressel points out, what helps make Lewis especially deadly this season is his best weapon, James Hardy. Coming to Indiana with hopes of playing basketball, Hardy is clearly an NFL level wideout at 6'7" with soft hands and better than average speed. Just a sophomore, he caught 61 balls last season for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has added 5 more scores to those eye popping numbers in 2006.
"He's the real deal," said Mitchell. "Last year we tried to do a couple things, keep a safety over the top just to make sure he didn't go crazy on us. We're probably going to do the same type of things this year. He's a good player."
When the Buckeyes put a safety over the top of a receiver, frankly – that says it all. Ohio State has been ‘Cornerback U' for over a decade, producing multiple all pros at the next level in Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, etc.
Forcing balance and respect from the Ohio State defense will be Lewis' legs as well as the play of Josiah Sears, Marcus Thigpen, and Demetrius McCray. The four have combined for 805 yards on 194 carries. Do the math, and they are averaging just over four yards a pop – again, not too shabby and again, not the ‘Indiana of old.'
Mitchell admitted, "We still haven't – as a whole stopped the run very well. We're just working to get a little bit better every day and just keep getting better and keep holding teams down. We are very proud of not giving up points, (but) coach always talks about in order to be the number one defense in the country you have to stop the run. We've only done that basically one game this season. That's what we're really working on."
They will need to do more than work on it Saturday if they expect to stop Lewis and his compadres. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Hoosiers have hope and why there is still lingering doubt about the Buckeye chances to make the championship game of the BCS.
Hoeppner spoke of the Buckeye defense with respect but not awe: "One of the indicators of a top-notch program is that they have quality depth - that their twos are as good as their ones and that their threes are as good as their twos - so it's just a case of the guys who were backups moving in. Great programs have people waiting in the wings and ready to step in. A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter are gone, but the coaches are the same, the scheme is the same. If you combine good coaching and a proven scheme with guys who can run fast and know where they're going, it's always good. It's a great challenge for our offense, but we have a lot of confidence right now in our offense."
How it will play out:
Ohio State will be playing the healthiest and perhaps best coached team it has seen since Penn State. Indiana, due to Hoeppner and his assistants, will not likely accept defeat even down multiple scores. They will continue to work and scrap in the trenches. Lewis, too young to really know if/when he is whipped, will be a thorn in the side of the Ohio State defense all afternoon. When he isn't throwing, he will be running and forcing the Buckeye secondary to stay with their assignments or be burned for big yardage. In particular, Jamario O'Neal, filling in for the injured Anderson Russell, will need to avoid biting on the play action pass or quarterback scrambling. If he is the safety over the top…and drops down prematurely then Hardy could be in for a big play.
Expect the Hoosiers to make a good showing of it – at least for Indiana. They may come out with enough in their tank for an early score, and will probably have at least one big return with special teams due to the abilities of Thigpen, but the Buckeye defense under their defensive coordinator Jim Heacock will tighten the noose and slowly but surely throttle them.
This is still Indiana as evidenced by their quotes this week.
Junior offensive tackle Charlie Emerson said of their win against Iowa, "It's the biggest win for anybody in the program right now. Beating Oregon two years ago when they were 24th in the country and beating Minnesota when they were 23rd was great, but this is one of the best wins we've ever had."
Read: Indiana has already had its bowl win. They may not make it to 6 victories (though I wouldn't bet against them because of their coaching staff), but the win against Iowa will be tough to rebound from and challenge Ohio State.
Couple that with the ‘new Indiana' but hangover of the ‘old Indiana' attitude and you can hear the lingering legacy in the words of Hardy who said of the Buckeyes this week; "They're going to be more aggressive. We have to come in with our scheme and do what we have to do to prepare. They're still the No. 1 team in the country, but if we go out there and play our hardest, I think we'll give them a game."
Give them a game? What about going for the win?
Ohio State defenders will do what they have had hammered into their brain this season and in the words of Terry, "We are all 1/11th as they say. No one man is bigger than the sum of the parts. As soon as you start trying to make plays or try to be Superman, that's when everything goes wrong - being out of your gap. You just have to do your job and let things work themselves out."
Things will work themselves out well for the Buckeyes so long as they continue to play their brand of football. Between the new schemes with the dime packages which free up all world defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock and their sheer amount of talent, Ohio State will start pulling away perhaps as early as the second quarter but definitely by the late third.
Look for the Buckeye offense to have a solid day passing the ball so long as the weather holds. Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez should have a touchdown each if Smith can hit them in stride. If October weather rears its ugly head in the form of winds and rain, look for Ohio State coaches to throw a steady diet of Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells at the undersized Hoosiers. In fact, look for that no matter what the weather is like.
The game will end with the Buckeyes ‘grinding meat' and running clock in an attempt to just notch one more victory.Ohio State 43 – Indiana 13