It’s been apparent for nearly the entire season, but Saturday’s performance made it blatantly obvious: Ohio State—the defending national champion, the unanimous preseason No. 1, the shoo-in for a College Football Playoff berth—is vulnerable. Really vulnerable.
The Buckeyes remained undefeated Saturday, holding off Indiana 34–27 thanks to a Heisman-worthy effort from running back Ezekiel Elliott and a defensive line that disrupted the Hoosiers' offense. But through five weeks, Ohio State has bore a striking resemblance to last year’s Florida State squad—not 2012 Alabama, the last team to repeat as a national champion.
Just as with the Seminoles last year, who managed to go unbeaten through the regular season despite rarely looking dominant, the Buckeyes could allay their concerns with the idea that they have a target on their back and therefore get every team’s best shot. That’s likely true, but it shouldn’t excuse their own poor execution. In every game Ohio State plays this season, it will have a talent advantage that should render moot motivation ploys about “dethroning the champs.”
On Saturday, a backup quarterback and a backup running back for a program that has had one winning season in the past 20 years came within nine yards of taking Ohio State to overtime. Zander Diamont deserves credit for rallying the Hoosiers when the Buckeyes seemed to have seized momentum. The quarterback even outran Ohio State’s defense for a 79-yard touchdown that came right on the heels of Ezekiel Elliott’s seemingly backbreaking 75-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter.
If this were the first time Ohio State got tested this season, it’d be understandable. A tight road battle with an undefeated conference foe is reasonable. But five games in, we’re still waiting for a complete performance from the Buckeyes. Cardale Jones completed 18 of 27 passes for 245 yards with a touchdown Saturday but missed on back-to-back would-be touchdown throws in the second quarter that forced Ohio State to settle for a field goal. He also tossed a third-quarter interception that led to an Indiana touchdown to reclaim the lead.
The Buckeyes have an embarrassment of riches at quarterback, but perhaps it was simpler when there was only one option at a time. Jones has yet to seize the role the way he did last year after J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle. Both quarterbacks failed to settle the debate during a Sept. 19 win over Northern Illinois, a 20–13 win decided by a pick-six from linebacker Darron Lee and repeated holds from the defense.
Ohio State’s D remains its clearest strength, as the Buckeyes allowed just 3.8 yards per play even after giving up 4.4 to the Hoosiers. Ohio State only brought down the quarterback once Saturday, but defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and defensive end Joey Bosa consistently caused havoc in the backfield and contributed to a 47.2% completion percentage for Hoosiers quarterbacks.
Most of the numbers suggest Ohio State should have beaten Indiana comfortably. The Buckeyes outgained the Hoosiers by 3.9 yards per play and held them to seven of 22 on third downs. But Indiana ran 30 more plays than Ohio State, a product of a 3–0 turnover advantage and five first downs from penalties. Wide receiver Jalin Marshall topped 100 yards but coughed up the ball twice, including a fourth-quarter fumble that led to a Hoosiers field goal to get back within a touchdown.
Both gaffes from Marshall came after he made defenders miss to pick up extra yards, perfectly summarizing the Buckeyes’ problems this season. They’re better than everyone—or at least everyone on their schedule up to a possible playoff semifinal—but their vulnerability this season is self-inflicted. That’s not a terrible problem to have, but as multiples games this season have nearly shown, it can still get you beat.