BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The best game on the college football schedule Saturday is a top-10 showdown between No. 3 Ohio State and No. 9 Indiana.
It's also the best quarterback matchup between the two best throwers in the Big Ten.
Most of American knows all about Ohio State junior quarterback Justin Fields, who was a five-star recruit and the No. 1-ranked player in the country in some recruiting services in 2018. He started his college career at Georgia, but then transferred to Ohio State — without having to sit out — last season. He went 13-1 as a starter a year ago, his only loss a bitter 29-23 defeat to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Indiana has a talented quarterback as well in redshirt sophomore Michael Penix Jr., who was in the same recruiting class as Fields but has had much less national attention. That all changed when he dove through the air and clipped the pylon to beat then No. 8-ranked Penn State on a two-point conversation in the Hoosiers' season opener. Penix is 9-1 as a starter throughout his injury-riddled career, and 4-0 this season.
They're both among the best in the game, and they are clearly in the spotlight of Saturday's huge top-10 game in Columbus (Noon ET kickoff; TV: FOX)
"There is a reason that the NFL pays their quarterbacks as much as they do. They are the key position on a football team,'' Indiana coach Tom Allen said Thursday. "You go as your quarterback goes, and that's just the way that it is. That's why you have two teams here that are both undefeated in conference play and playing in a big, big game together.
"I have already said how I feel about Justin Fields. He is really special. But I think we have a great one, too. It's a great opportunity for Michael. It's his first chance to play against Ohio State since he has been here. I am excited to see how this game, this environment, and this opportunity pulls even more greatness out of him.''
Fields has been exceptional so far this year for Ohio State during its 3-0 start. (The Buckeyes' game last week with Maryland had to be canceled because of COVID-19 issues inside the Terrapins' program). He has been insanely accurate, throwing 11 touchdown passes — and only 11 incompletions. He's 72-for-83 passing, good for an 86.7 completion percentage, by far the best in the country. He's averaging 302.7 passing yards per game, and has also rushed for two scores.
"You watch him at length like we already have and we will continue to, and he is just extremely poised,'' Allen said. "He has tremendous arm talent, and has such a quick release that is allows him to be able to throw the ball where he wants to throw it in a very quick manner.
"He moves around, and he makes people miss. It's really hard to get him on the ground, even if a guy comes clean. When you have time to throw and you've got excellent receivers that have a pretty big catch radius, are great athletes that can jump, they get a lot of separation naturally. It makes those windows a lot wider. That's tough to defend.''
Indiana has thrived on making quarterbacks look bad during its four-game winning streak to start the season. The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in BOTH interceptions (10) and sacks (12). But doing that against Fields might be something completely different. He's yet to throw an interception this year, and he's only been sacked seven times. Last season, he had 41 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.
"You want to get pressure on the quarterback and be able to make them feel flustered and make bad decisions. With him, that's hard,'' Allen said. "He's gotten better, and you see that when you watch him from last year to this year. After we played him — (a 51-10 Ohio State win in Bloomington in mid-September) — I was so impressed with him. He is a special talent and there is a reason why he is arguably the best quarterback in the country.
"Like every other quarterback, you have to affect them in some way. They have to feel uncomfortable. It's not necessarily sacking them multiple times — although that would be a bonus — but it's more about not giving him clean windows to throw in and making him have to move and then not get his feet set. You want to disrupt his timing and make those windows harder to read and react when the ball is snapped. It will be a tremendous challenge for our defense. It's definitely the biggest test we have had this year.''
Fields was one of the loudest voices among Big Ten players when the league first postponed the season. He wanted to play, primarily because this Ohio State team has national championship aspirations. Those still exist, and Indiana is just the next step on that path. The Hoosiers, despite being 4-0 and ranked No. 9 in the country, are still three-touchdown underdogs on Saturday.
For Indiana to contend on Saturday, Penix will have to play well. He's only lost once as a starter during his career, and he's been very good thus far in 2020. He's thrown for 1,070 yards already, and has consecutive 300-yard games against Michigan and Michigan State, beating them both in the same season for the first time in school history.
"He's fearless. You've got to give him a lot of credit,'' Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Penix. "Right now, he's playing almost perfectly. He's a very competitive player, as you can tell. We have to be ready to go and ready to play four quarters.''
He has nine touchdown passes and three interceptions, and he's also rushed for two touchdowns and that now-infamous two-point conversion, now affectionately called "The Reach'' across Indiana.
"Both teams have great quarterbacks,'' Allen said. "Michael is not as experienced as Justin Fields or played as much football as he has, but he has shown that he has an elite skill set. I really think that Michael's decision-making is one of his greatest strengths. The rest of the natural stuff flows from there with his quick release and his arm strength.''
According to Pro Football Focus, Penix ranks No. 9 nationally in their quarterbacks rankings — Fields is No. 2, behind only Clemson's Trevor Lawrence — and Penix is first in the Power 5 in "Big-Time Throws" downfield with 15 this far. He's got two standout receivers in seniors Ty Fryfogle (24 catches for 424 yards and four TDs) and Whop Philyor (24 for 287), and plenty of depth behind them. Tight end Peyton Hendershot also has been a weapon, with 14 receptions, three for touchdowns.
"I think as a group, we are playing with so much confidence right now, which is a big part of who we are,'' Indiana receivers coach Grant Heard said earlier this week. "If Mike gives us the opportunity to catch the ball, he has got to believe and trust in us that we will come down with it and make a play for him. He has done a great job and the guys have gone up and competed for the ball and made their plays.
"As a coach I think we probably have not made enough, but they have made some good plays and we just have to keep improving on that each week.''
Ohio State really doesn't have any weaknesses, but the Buckeyes' secondary did lose three players to the NFL last season and they have given up some yards so far this year despite the 3-0 start. The Buckeyes are allowing 224 yards passing thus far, just sixth in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers feel like there are areas where they can attack. They feel like they've become more explosive as each week passes.
'As the weeks go on, you get better chemistry because you have more practices together and you're getting to play together more,'' said Fryfogle, who had 11 carches for 200 yards last week against Michigan State. "I feel great with Mike in terms of being able to get more practices in versus last year. He just keeps getting better every week.
"He has progressed a lot as a quarterback. He has learned the game, the coverages, and the hard parts that a lot of guys can't figure out. Everybody can continue to get better, but he is dialed in. He knows where guys are going to be in coverage. He has learned how to beat the coverage, and that is the part he has really become great at.''
For Indiana's defense to have success, they are going to have to force Fields into some errors, something that's not part of his makeup. Indiana's defenders know how good he is, but they'll have a plan for him anyway.
"He is pretty deceptive in where he is throwing the ball,'' said Indiana cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who had two interceptions last week in the 24-0 shutout of Michigan State. He is a great quarterback. We have to create takeaways in the coverages we play. We need to try to create turnovers.
"He is a great quarterback. He is very detailed in where he throws the ball, but we have to create some takeaways.''
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