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Surprising Hoosiers ready to challenge in Big Ten East

COLUMBUS — Back when the schedule was assembled, a mid-November game between perennial power Ohio State and middling Indiana looked like a snoozer, an easy win for the talented Buckeyes.

But it’s 2020, right? Lots of things are strange and different.

Turns out today’s Big Ten game in the empty Horseshoe will be a clash of AP Top 10 teams, with the undefeated No. 9 Hoosiers emerging as one of the best conference squads No. 3 Ohio State could see this season.

The winner will have the upper hand in the Big Ten East and the chance to play for the conference title. That would be a big deal for Indiana, which hasn’t even sniffed a conference crown since it shared one with two other teams in 1967.

A loss for the Buckeyes (3-0) — whose game last week was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak at Maryland — almost certainly would be fatal to their national championship hopes.

Indiana (4-0) is winning behind quarterback Michael Penix Jr. He leads the Big Ten in passing yards with 1,070, and his nine touchdowns are just one away from his total for all of last year and two behind Ohio State’s Justin Fields, the conference leader.

Penix has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of the past two games, decisive wins over Michigan (1-3) and Michigan State (1-3). The Hoosiers beat Penn State (0-4) in overtime in their opener, and Rutgers (1-3) the following week.

The matchup with three-touchdown favorite Ohio State should give the Hoosiers a better idea of whether they can run with the big dogs.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day insisted Indiana’s hot start this year wasn’t entirely unpredictable, noting the Hoosiers were improving under coach Tom Allen and have gotten a jolt from the dynamic play of Penix, a redshirt sophomore who was on the bench for unspecified reasons in Ohio State’s 51-10 win last season in Bloomington.

“It’s 2020,” Day said. “Anything can happen, so you just don’t know. So I’m not surprised about this at all.”

VULNERABLE BUCKEYES?

In its last game Nov. 7, Ohio State built up a 35-3 halftime lead over five-touchdown underdog Rutgers and then backed off the gas and prepared to start putting in backups. Except Rutgers wasn’t cooperating. The Scarlet Knights outgained and outscored the Buckeyes 24-14 the rest of the way, and the 49-27 Ohio State win was a little too close for Day’s comfort. He said he thought playing at night in a nearly empty, energy-deprived stadium may have contributed.

ROLLING FIELDS

Fields lit up Rutgers to keep alive his status as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner after being a finalist last year. He was 24 of 28 for 314 yards and five touchdowns and he rushed for another score. Fields, likely to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft next spring, is completing nearly 87% of his passes while averaging more than 300 yards per game. He has thrown the same number of touchdowns as incomplete passes — 11 — and has zero interceptions.

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