Those wacky kids.
Had the Buckeyes walloped the impressive, top-10 Hoosiers as appeared likely at 35-7 just after halftime, it would have reinforced the idea of a Clemson-Alabama-Ohio State-Oklahoma tier that has hogged 17 of the first 24 College Football Playoff berths and has sapped the cross-country variety and possibility that boosts the sport. When the Hoosiers assembled a flurry of gorgeous plays to arrange two late possessions from only one score down — neither got close to scoring — it signaled a hope for the ambitious stragglers and a need to keep paying attention.
If nothing else, the game reminded that very young people play this sport, which can sustain its unpredictability even when times seem predictable. Yet there was not nothing else but something else.
“There’s no question the gap has been closed,” Indiana Coach Tom Allen said, even if by “closed,” he seemed to mean “closed some” or “narrowed.” “We’re not there yet. They still have a lot of very elite players that make it challenging. ... I think we’re getting closer, closer all the time.”
Indiana (4-1) dazzled in wins over Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan and Michigan State with enthralling quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and gobsmacking wide receiver Ty Fryfogle. Yet when it ventured to Columbus, it went up against two goblins.
It rammed into the era of national branding when even the great Californians or Hawaiians might go all the way to Clemson or Alabama and a top-rated quarterback in Texas announces (on Thursday) he will head all the way to Ohio State for that quarterbacking tutelage. And it rammed into the reality it had not beaten Ohio State since 1988, when a second straight win over the Buckeyes became the first in Bloomington since 1904, whereupon quarterback Dave Schnell told reporters: “I don’t think I have any relatives who were even living then or, I mean, any who are alive now who were then. Well, you know what I mean.”
Well, through the past two-thirds of the second quarter to the first possession beyond halftime, Ohio State and virtuoso quarterback Justin Fields scored on four consecutive possessions, none cheap. The Buckeyes went 75 yards on seven plays, 76 on eight, 93 on nine and 75 on six. The score went from 7-7 to 35-7, and those 30 plays, mostly masterful, featured 13 runs, 17 passes and mixed beauty.
It seemed Ohio State should coast to whatever semblance of a playoff will be conducted in this pandemic year, but then maybe 20-year-old minds tend to let the zeal ebb a bit when the score stands 35-7.
A barrage of entertainment later, the game ended with the camera catching Fields frowning. Fields wound up saying, “I didn’t play well, at all,” and, “I mean, of course I made bad decisions.” He wound up with three interceptions, equal to the total this maestro had in 14 games last season set against 41 touchdown passes. Those three wound up mattering less than they might have, a source of fret for one of those fan bases so accustomed to wins that it subjects narrow wins to thorough dissection.
What’s going on with that secondary … ?
“Almost 500 yards of offense, in terms of passing, is too much,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said.
To get from 35-7 to 42-21 and then 42-35, Penix threw 63 yards to Fryfogle in open terrain up the middle for one touchdown, 33 yards to Fryfogle leaping over a defender for another, 16 yards on fourth and 10 to David Ellis for another and 56 yards up the right sideline to a dazzling Fryfogle for the last score of the game, after which 10:26 still remained. It all helped Penix, from Tampa, to 27-for-51 passing for 491 yards and five touchdowns with one interception. It helped Fryfogle, from Mississippi, to seven catches for 218 yards and means his past three games have gone like this: 25 receptions, 560 yards, and my.
“A special, special player,” Allen said.
Even with 607 yards for one side (Ohio State) and 490 for the other, this game that could have wound up deepening the tedium wound up hinging on three little turns the Hoosiers might rue on a ride back to Bloomington. One: Ellis’s fumble inside the Ohio State 10-yard line with three minutes left in the second quarter, after which the Buckeyes moved 93 yards to lead 28-7 at halftime. Two: Jamar Johnson’s interception of a rare bad decision from Fields in the third quarter, after which Johnson raced inside the Ohio State 20, after which Buckeyes wide receiver Julian Fleming, in a smashing play, punched a fumble loose. Three: Shaun Wade’s 36-yard interception return for a touchdown of a rare Penix mistake on a throw to the right sideline, which pushed the score to 42-21.
That wound up the difference, and college football wound up reserving its right to say you never know for sure, even if it seems anymore that you do know often.