BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Simon Stepaniak is on Ohio guy, so Saturday’s game against No. 6-ranked Ohio State means just a touch more for Indiana’s senior right guard. The fifth-year senior has never beaten the Buckeyes, so this is his last chance.
And his best chance.
Ohio State has dominated this rivalry — Indiana hasn’t won since 1988 — and the Buckeyes have been the top-dog in the Big Ten for a long time now. But since Tom Allen’s arrival, the mindset and talent level has changed, enough that the Hoosiers think they can contend — and win — this weekend, despite being two-touchdown underdogs.
“The talent we have, and with what Coach (David) Ballou and Dr. (Matt) Rhea do with us with conditioning and getting us ready physicially, we’re neck and neck with them now,’’ said Stepaniak, a Hamilton, Ohio native. “There’s really no reason why we can’t compete at this level.’’
He does, however, know the challenge that awaits Indiana’s offensive line on Saturday. This group, one of only three in the country that hasn’t allowed a sack through two games — UAB and Utah are the others — is going to have a lot to say about the outcome of this game. They need to give redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Penix Jr., time to make plays.
So far so good through two wins over Ball State and Eastern Illinois, but Ohio State is another different animal entirely.
“It’s so nice as an offensive lineman (to know he hasn’t been touched),’’ said Stepaniak, one of three senior starters on Indiana’s O-line. “That’s our job to keep him nice and safe. We’ve been getting better every week. Just meshing as an offensive line is the biggest thing with the two new guys (juniors Harry Crider and Caleb Jones). We’ve improved a lot. It’s so far ahead of where we started at.''
“This week we’ll really have to step up. Every week your goal is to improve and that’s what we’re trying to do. Our goal is to be the best offensive line in the Big Ten, and we’re going to have to improve every week to get there.’’
As always, Ohio State’s defensive front is loaded with guys who will be playing on Sundays very soon. They have nine sacks as a group already in two easy wins over Florida Atlantic and Cincinnati, tied for fifth-most in the country. They will be a challenge.
“They're a typical Ohio State team, very, very big, physical, and explosive on both sides of the football,’’ Indiana coach Tom Allen said Monday. “They are very dominant up front and have really overwhelmed their first two opponents (Florida Atlantic and Cincinnati). Going against these defensive ends (IU's offensive line is) going to play against on the perimeter is different than the first couple weeks, a lot different. And then the two guys on the inside they're going to be facing are more physical, more explosive, bigger guys than we’ve seen.
“It's a heightened sense of technical precision you have to have in everything that you do, whether it's the communication piece or whether it's the footwork, your hand placement, the line calls, and checks and adjustments, all the stuff that they do.”
Growing up in Ohio, watching the Buckeyes was a family tradition in the Stepaniak household.
“Being from Ohio, my family watched them every week. I was probably more of a UC (University of Cincinnati) fan because I was from Cincinnati. But I liked Ohio State, because they were the boys.
"It means more, for sure, this week. There’s a little inside motivation there.’’
Pass protection has been great so far, but running the ball has still been a bit of an issue. The Hoosiers struggled to run against Ball State, especially in the first half. That made Stepaniak and his mates pretty angry.
“Coming out of that game with not many rush yards (against Ball State) really put a chip on our shoulder. We were angry all week in practice and I think we showed a lot more this week, being more physical.’’
Getting after it is what they do, but in a controlled manner.
“The biggest thing this camp was being able to control your aggression. Last year, you’d see some aggressiveness get the best of us. This year we wanted to make sure we play clean, but still put people on the ground.’’
They’ll win a few plays and lose a few against Ohio State’s talented front, but the goal is to win more than they lose.
“They’ll have positive plays on us, so we’ll just have to keep a level mind. That 1-0 attitude matters, and that’s where leadership comes in. We can’t get too down, and not get too high. We need to bring our best on every play.’’
He’s excited, and he’ll be ready.
“It’s not nerves, but it’s being anxious for the game,’’ he said. “It’s a big game, big crowd, all that stuff. We just have trust everything we’ve gone through to be ready.
“Every year our goal is to beat everyone in the league. We’re not going to buy into Vegas and, “oh, these guys are going to win by this much.’ We just go in ready to play.’’