COLUMBUS, Ohio – Indiana had a terrible, no good, very bad start against Ohio State.
Within the first five minutes of the game, the following plays happened: 65-yard pass completion to a wide open receiver for the Buckeyes, a 10-yard pass completion for a touchdown on which it looked like there was absolutely no defense, an IU snap over QB Michael Penix's head for a 16-yard loss, a brutal hit on return man Whop Philyor. All of that added up to a 7-0 Buckeyes lead and Ohio State possession of the football with a chance to potentially land a knockout blow in the first quarter.
Same old Indiana, right?
Then, something changed. The Hoosiers woke up on defense. A unit that has lived off turnovers all year showed that it could play the same way against one of the best offenses in the country. Looking for that knockout punch, Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields went deep on the first play after an IU punt and cornerback Jamar Johnson undercut the route, picking it off for Fields' first interception of the year.
That play seemed to help Indiana breathe a sigh of relief and after that the defense made Fields look as human as any team has in the last year and a half outside of Clemson in the College Football Playoff last season. Fields' first few throws were from clean pockets, but for much of the rest of the half the Heisman Trophy favorite had rushers in his face from a variety of angles. One of the times he was pressured he made a very poor decision and threw the ball up into double coverage, where it bounced off the hands of four different players before defensive lineman Jerome Johnson made a diving catch to secure it for IU's second interception. Johnson later added a sack of Fields, one of Indiana take-downs of Buckeye quarterback in the first half, and did a little dance in celebration.
After the embarrassingly easy opening-drive touchdown for the Buckeyes, Ohio State's next four drives went interception-punt-interception-punt, a testament to the work the IU defense did to keep the Hoosiers in the game. For the entire first quarter and into the second, the IU offense wasted that heroic effort from its defensive counterparts. In addition to the botched snap, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. missed more at least three open receivers by my count and there were too many drops of accurate balls from the wide receivers. The worst of the latter category was a wide-open drop by Ty Fryfogle in Ohio State territory on 4th-and-2 that would have resulted in an easy first down. Those are the type of plays Indiana can't afford to miss if it's going to win a game against a team like the Buckeyes.
After letting some opportunities go by the board, the IU offense finally struck early in the second quarter. On first down from IU 29, Miles Marshall made one little shoulder fake and rocketed pass his defender into open space without safety help. Penix loaded up and put everything he had into the throw, which was right on the money for a 68-yard gain to the OSU 3. Two plays later, Penix hit Whop Philyor with an easy out route for a touchdown and suddenly Indiana was level with the No. 3 team in the country.
It's hard to keep a great offense down for long in college football, though, and Ohio State immediately re-took the lead with a 41-yard run from Master Teague through a gaping hole in the left side. The run was a microcosm of Indiana's biggest defensive issue in the first half: the Ohio State offensive line dominated the Indiana defensive front. The pressure Indiana was able to get on Fields was mostly through blitzes from the secondary, but when it rushed only four, Fields had all day to throw. In the run game, OSU's front knocked Indiana backward nearly every time and the Buckeyes averaged 8.5 yards per carry in the opening half. Unless that changes significantly somehow, it's difficult to see how Indiana can overcome its halftime deficit, especially since Fields seemed to adjust to the pressure late in the half and made some big plays with his feet. Too much speed and talent for the Buckeyes seems to be the order of the day.
But the fact remains that Indiana got punched in the mouth to open this game and the Hoosiers responded. That's a credit to Tom Allen and his ability to keep his players motivated and focused, even when the situation looked dire, as it did in the opening minutes. Now the situation looks dire again. Maybe Indiana has something wacky up its sleeve, but this one seems to be all but over.