IU’s fifth game of the season against No. 3 Ohio State is set to be physical at the line of scrimmage, and IU head coach Tom Allen said he believes it may be where the game is determined.
The game brings a chance for the offensive line to take a step forward and an opportunity for the defensive line to continue to impose themselves on opposing quarterbacks.
“It’s going to be true on both sides of the football,” Allen said in a Zoom conference Monday. “That’s the matchup that will probably be at the focal point of both sides of the ball.”
The defensive line has already played a significant role through five games, pressuring quarterbacks and helping force takeaways that have already led to 57 points on the season.
Against Michigan State on Saturday, IU turned three interceptions and a fumble recovery into two touchdowns and a field goal.
Against Ohio State’s junior quarterback Justin Fields, who hasn’t thrown an interception on 83 attempts this season, turnovers will be at a premium.
“There’s a reason why he’s arguably the best quarterback in the country,” Allen said. “Like every other quarterback, you have to affect them in some way. They have to feel uncomfortable.”
Allen said it might come down to simply pressuring the quarterback as much as it does sacking him, but IU has proved its ability to turn pressure into sacks this season. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten with 12 sacks after recording four against Michigan State.
Over the last two games, IU’s defensive line has been dominant. The Hoosiers held the Spartans to 60 yards rushing last week and the Michigan Wolverines to only 13 yards Nov. 7.
“There’s some unsung heroes in there,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “We don’t talk about those guys as much because of some of the flash you see from our linebackers and DBs, but there’s a physicality that’s happening up front with our defensive line.”
Among those are senior Jerome Johnson, who registered his first two sacks of the season against Michigan State, and junior James Head Jr., who Wommack said has continued to improve week by week.
“There’s a guy who has continued to work his tail off and get better at what he does,” Wommack said. “He’s really just focused on his role and to me, seeing a guy that is starting to produce now in our defense has been very rewarding.”
Wommack said in order to control Fields, who can escape pressure and extend plays, IU needs to be able to rely on its defensive ends.
On the other side of the ball, IU will look to its offensive line to keep pressure off sophomore quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and create openings for the run game.
The offensive line has only allowed two sacks since allowing three in the season opener against Penn State on Oct. 24. IU will look to continue that trend against Ohio State, especially after proving its depth last week.
Junior tackle Caleb Jones was replaced by junior Luke Haggard, who saw his first significant action against Michigan State after transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College.
“I think number one, credit to the players for their preparation and their work ethic,” Sheridan said. “number two, their position coach, Darren Hiller. I think those are the two primary people or groups that are responsible for their improvement.”
The battle will be seen on national television when No. 9 IU takes on No. 3 Ohio State at noon Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, on Fox.
“This football team is highly motivated,” Allen said. “This team has worked extremely hard and we’re used to being told we don’t measure up.”