Ohio State has not been wanting for unique offenses to play this season. They started with the flexbone triple-option offense of Navy, proceeded to the west-coast stylings of USC and spread it out against Toledo and the Illini. Tomorrow, they’ll get their first taste of the pistol offense. The “pistol offense” may be a bit misleading, as, really, is the “flexbone offense”. The pistol, by itself, does not have a set of plays, nor does it necessarily entail “option”. The pistol is a means of coordinating the center-QB exchange and aligning the backs in the backfield. But unlike a handoff under center or the shotgun, it has inherent advantages in play-action by hiding the back behind the QB on a short snap. So, don’t expect “pistol” to entail the option-friendly Buckeye pistol of yesteryear3; Indiana doesn’t really utilize their QB as a rushing threat. Nevertheless, Indiana’s offense has taken to working almost exclusively out of the pistol. Approaching the nation’s bottom fourth in several statistical categories of offense last year, the Hoosiers have found a better balance with run and pass en route to being an above average offense nationally.
This matchup may have been a little terrifying if we were talking about the 2007 Hoosiers and then-QB Kellen Lewis. He’s now gone, and was demoted to WR prior to that in favor of local boy Ben Chappell. Chappell as QB was in the works for some time prior to Lewis’ dismissal from Bloomington and has shined with the offense so far. He obviously lacks the raw athleticism of a Kellen Lewis or Terrelle Pryor, but he’s a competent quarterback that’s difficult to sack. While Chappell’s ability to get rid of the ball under duress and find an open man is important, he’s greatly assisted by his offensive line. Indiana’s offensive line is a veteran one. Left tackle Roger Saffold and right guard Pete Saxson, both Ohio natives, have a combined 65 starts between them. 6’8, 331lb James Brewer will assist with some physicality on the other bookend. Still, one has to believe that our defensive line will be the best they’ve seen yet and may see the whole season. It’s the most important battle to watch, but if the defensive line can be their usual bad-ass selves against Indiana, it’ll be a long day for the hometown fans.
This preview has been deferential so far to a quality opponent who has shown significant improvement from the previous year. Still, this isn’t Houston we’ll be playing; Indiana has a lot of shortcomings on offense. Chappell doesn’t take too many sacks, but he does throw more interceptions (4 INTs) than he should. The last of them was obviously an iffy call to end the game last week in Ann Arbor. Further, I haven’t seen enough of Indiana’s two tailbacks — Darius Willis and Demetrius McCray — to say that either are gamebreakers. Willis, a true freshman, was a gamebreaker against the Wolverines last week with his 16 carries, 152 yards and 2 TD performance. However, he only had 3 yards on 3 carries in the season opener, did not play the next week, and mustered 66 yards on 15 carries against Akron. McCray is the veteran of the two and has a good season so far in the aggregate, but most of his yards is a function of a 17 carry, 134 yard performance against Western Michigan. Lastly, the Hoosiers have been woefully inadequate in the red zone. Settling for field goals when TDs were ideal may have been the difference last week against the Wolvereenies. In their 15 red zone scores (out of 17 red zone drives), they’ve settled for field goals 8 times. This may be a little surprising, since their top 3 WRs — Damarlo Belcher, Terrance Turner and Tandon Doss — are all listed at 6’3 and above.
Stones are easy to throw4, but it’s not like Ohio State is the most explosive offense in the red zone either. Getting 6 rather than settling for 3 against an Ohio State team that’s no lock to enter the endzone themselves would be huge for the Hoosiers.
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes are hoping for continued improvement on offense. Inadequte for the first two games, the Buckeyes have responded with better showings against Toledo and the Illini. Granted, both defenses are meek and unimpressive at best. Nevertheless, improvement was desired and improvement is what we got. Last week against the Illini, the Buckeyes finally spread their formation out, operating out of a spread-out shotgun formation through the entire game until 8 minutes were left in the 4th quarter. What was the benefit of this, beyond a impulsive, modern instinct that spread = points? Zone-reads and a spread formation took defenders out of the box. Backside pursuit was on its heels, linebackers were playing back and defensive backs couldn’t cheat up to the line of scrimmage. The problem with power plays is, unless you can adequately bring the power every play, they leave defenders unblocked. As a result: everyone looks bad. John Peterson gave a sad indication that it was more of an Illinois thing, but there’s no reason it can’t be an Indiana thing as well.
After all, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton, the senior defensive ends for the Hoosiers, constitute one of the better defensive end tandem in the conference. In short, they are not to be taken lightly in spite of their presence on a team that most people would usually equate with “cupcake”. Middleton has fallen off the radar a bit with a quiet 2008 campaign after a breakout 2007 season. Kirlew, a 2008 Hendricks finalist, has picked up right where he left off. He already has 8.5 TFLs (tied for 6th nationally) to go with 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks. With uncertainty at our tackle positions, doing what we can to keep those two at bay would be ideal. Nevertheless, attacking the interior of the Indiana defense is tempting. Both tackles are freshman: Adam Replogle (of Centerville, OH) and Larry Black Jr (of Wyoming, OH).
The starting linebackers are all team leaders in tackling. Ideally, Indiana’s defense would love a conventional rush-heavy attack that would allow Kirlew and Middleton to disrupt things in the backfield and allow their linebackers, including Replogle’s older brother Tyler, to be free to make tackles. This is ideal, because Indiana’s secondary is rather inviting. Indiana’s top cornerback — senior Ray Fisher (of the Cleveland Glenville program) — was their leading receiver last year. Generally: not good. Their other cornerback, Richard Council, is a tall, lanky glass of water who was among the team’s leaders in pass breakups before an ankle injury ended his season midway through. Generally: not good. Their starting strong safety, Austin Thomas, has been capable so far, but starts 2009 after missing almost all of 2008 to an ACL injury. Generally: not good. As we know, Ohio State has a young, but improving, receiver corp with two wide receivers — Sanzenbacher and Carter — having already demonstrated a proclivity to find soft spots in the secondary. Further, Terrelle Pryor preys on weak secondaries. It’s a problem that Pryor looks for a big play more than the really should, but the big plays present themselves against weak secondaries more than they do the converse. It’ll be something to watch.
The Buckeyes are favored in this game, and many Buckeye fans don’t seem to be sweating it too much. Still, it’ll be a night game for the Hoosiers and an opportunity to display just how much they improved from 2008 to 2009. The game will be on the Big Ten Network for your amusement. If you happen to be showing up to this game, wear gray.