Even in a loss, Indiana proves that it belongs
Indiana looked tight early against Ohio State.
Understandable, considering the hype coming into Saturday. This was the biggest game the Hoosiers have played not only in the players’ lifetimes, but probably that of their parents too.
But after those nervous early moments, the Hoosiers began to believe late, a maturation that happened right in front of us in the game at Ohio Stadium against Ohio State.
But those moments early, when Indiana was trying to feel its way through the enormity of the day, proved costly in the ninth-ranked Hoosiers’ seven-point loss at No. 3 Ohio State. It was only a few plays. Such a role-reversal from Indiana’s undefeated start. In the first four games of the season, the Hoosiers were the ones forcing opponents into a series of minor mistakes that turned into big ones.
Ohio State did it to Indiana in winning 42-35 on Saturday.
There was Hoosiers receiver Ty Fryfogle, who has been an absolute stud this season, dropping a fourth-down pass on a promising early scoring opportunity. There was the high snap over the head of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. There was David Ellis’ fumble in the red zone right before halftime, when IU was threatening to pull within a score. There was Jamar Johnson’s second interception, this one in the third quarter, except he fumbled the ball back to the Buckeyes deep in OSU territory on the return.
After all of that, Indiana was oh so close.
The Hoosiers’ second-half fight was impressive. It’s not too much to suggest that Indiana showed the country more in its loss on Saturday than it did in any of the previous victories.
Sure, those wins mean something. The image of Penix’s “reach” against Penn State will be emblazoned across T-shirts for years to come. The Hoosiers silenced their own demons against Michigan after years and years of losses. Then Indiana not only beat Michigan State but shut the Spartans out in East Lansing. But in this Bizzarro World of a 2020 Big Ten season, those wins were against teams with a combined 3-13 record entering the weekend.
But in competing with the Buckeyes deep into the fourth quarter — hey, IU had the margin down to seven, with the ball, in the fourth quarter, better than a lot of others can claim in Columbus — the Hoosiers provided validation that their 4-0 start wasn’t only the result of who they were playing, but how they were playing.
The loss, though, proved something else: That the Hoosiers aren’t yet ready to pull out that kind of upset, not in such a meaningful game for both teams.
Sometimes, and Saturday was one of those times, the overwhelming athleticism of an opponent is too much to overcome with will and hard work. Such was the case vs. OSU. The Buckeyes can throw waves of players at an opponent, from the Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback to wide receivers who will be playing on Sundays to a defensive line full of monsters and a secondary that’s always around the ball.
But the Hoosiers made those pieces look ordinary at times. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields threw three interceptions, a number that he’s unlikely to replicate in all the rest of the Buckeyes’ games combined. Penix, when his offensive line gave him enough time (and that was a legit issue), was able to drop in dimes against that OSU secondary.
And IU has its own players. How can you not be impressed by the growth of Fryfogle or the potential of Penix or the play-making of Johnson or the size of defensive lineman Jerome Johnson?
The Hoosiers certainly had dreams of the monumental upset, and coach Tom Allen very likely had them believing they could win. Certainly after overcoming some nervous early moments, the Hoosiers looked like they had become believers. But the reality is that Indiana doesn’t — quite — have the horses; few do.
But IU will be a favorite in two of its last three scheduled games, against Maryland and Purdue back in Memorial Stadium, with a challenging road game left at Wisconsin. And then the yet-to-be-determined crossover game during the week of the B1G Championship Game, in which Indiana is likely to take on the second- or third-place West Division squad.
The Hoosiers will belong on all those fields, just as they belonged in Ohio Stadium Saturday. And man, it’s been a long, long time since we’ve said that.