The Ohio State football team has two games left on its schedule, but the Buckeyes know a win — or a Michigan State loss — will give them a third.
OSU (9-1, 6-0) is set for a shot to seal a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game against Indiana on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, but when it comes time for the noon kickoff, nothing will be a given.
The Lantern sports editors picked five key questions needing answers as the Buckeyes look to book their ticket to Indianapolis and the Hoosiers try to delay their trip.
1. Will sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott become coach Urban Meyer’s second 1,000-yard rusher?
Chances are Elliott — who has accumulated 954 rushing yards on 167 carries this season — will break the 1,000-yard barrier this season. But if the Buckeyes establish the run game early, he could do it in the first quarter against Indiana.
There’s no guarantee, but Elliott’s strong play in recent weeks has been key to OSU’s offensive attack. As he closes in on a career milestone, there’s no reason for the coaching staff to go away from him if he’s playing well from the start.
Former Buckeye Carlos Hyde became Meyer’s first-ever 1,000-yard rusher last season, against Indiana, and Elliott — especially in recent weeks — has compared favorably to Hyde’s play.
If he doesn’t pick up the necessary 46 yards, OSU won’t be guaranteed a loss. But a big win for the Buckeyes could come behind a big day from Elliott.
2. Will playing at home help the Buckeyes eliminate mistakes?
OSU is coming off of consecutive road wins against teams ranked in the top 25 of the College Football Playoff standings, but that doesn’t mean the team was flawless against Michigan State and Minnesota.
First-half turnovers against Michigan State allowed the Spartans to take a 21-14 lead early on, but the OSU offense found a way to make up for it to take a 28-21 lead into the half. Against Minnesota, a pair of lost fumbles and an interception allowed the Golden Gophers to stay within three at halftime and eventually keep the game within seven when the clock ran out.
Both games were played on the road — and the Minnesota game was played in below-20-degree temperatures — but many of the mistakes were still avoidable. Redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall’s two fumbles lost against the Golden Gophers almost single-handedly kept the game close, while the Buckeyes’ offensive explosion helped overcome some big plays given up after turnovers against Michigan State.
Returning to Ohio Stadium might be the perfect remedy for OSU’s turnover issues, and if that’s the case, the Buckeyes could be in for a commanding win.
3. How many yards will Indiana junior running back Tevin Coleman gain?
Meyer said it best during Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference: Coleman is “ridiculous.”
The Hoosier running back is the focal point of the offense, and has carried the load with 214 carries totaling 1,678 yards so far this season. He’s also got 12 touchdowns on the ground, and is coming off a 307-yard performance in a loss to Rutgers last week.
It’s hard to say how Indiana managed to lose a game when its running back put up that many yards on the ground, but Coleman getting rolling is one of the few things likely to keep Indiana in the game against OSU.
4. Can Indiana freshman quarterback Zander Diamont step up in the Horseshoe?
The Hoosiers entered the season with an experienced junior quarterback under center, but since junior Nate Sudfeld went down with a season-ending shoulder injury after playing in six games, Diamont has gotten the call.
Sudfeld threw for 1,151 yards and six touchdowns to just three interceptions before getting hurt, and Diamont hasn’t come close to replicating those numbers.
In the first two games of his collegiate career — consecutive losses to Michigan State and Michigan by a combined 63 points — Diamont completed a grand total of 10 passes on 23 attempts. Those 10 completions totaled just 35 yards and no touchdowns.
He didn’t throw his first touchdown until his fourth game, and has completed just 46.9 percent of his passes as a Hoosier.
Diamont starting wasn’t in Indiana’s this season, and having him start against the No. 6 Buckeyes could be too tall of a task. If he struggles from the start, expect the OSU defense to bring pressure early and often and force at least a few mistakes from the freshman signal caller.
5. Can the J.T. Barrett and Joey Bosa combination continue to impress?
The 2013 recruiting classmates have arguably been the top two players not only on the OSU team, but in the Big Ten as well.
Thursday afternoon, Bosa was named a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which is given to the best lineman or linebacker in the country, while Barrett has the third-best odds to win the Heisman Trophy (15/1 as of Thursday evening) according to Bovada.com, an online gambling site.
Both are coming off big games individually as Bosa recorded a season-high seven tackles in a 31-24 win over Minnesota and Barrett broke three school records including longest rush by a quarterback (86), most rushing yards in a game by a quarterback (189) and touchdowns responsible for in a season (38).
Bosa will need to play one of his better games in order to shut down Coleman, as he said Wednesday that the goal of the defense is to hold the Indiana back under 100 yards.
If Barrett can continue to play like he has since the loss to Virginia Tech, there is a very good chance he could be on a flight to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in early December.