COLUMBUS -- Several times late in the game Saturday, Ohio State Buckeyes players turned toward the stands and waved their arms in the air as they would do on a normal Saturday afternoon to ask a crowd of 100,000-plus for more noise.
Maybe they were doing it out of habit or for the TV cameras, but there were no fans watching inside Ohio Stadium when Ohio State played Indiana. There were approximately 34 people in the stands — photographers, videographers and security guards. This was the first game this season in which not even family members of players and coaches were able to attend because of stricter COVID-19 measures in Franklin County.
If there had been fans, they would have been on the edge of their seats as Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. rallied the No. 9 Hoosiers from a 35-7 deficit to make it interesting before the No. 3 Buckeyes escaped with a 42-35 victory.
Penix completed 27 of 51 passes for 491 yards and five touchdowns. Indiana trailed by seven on its last two possessions but gained a total of 18 yards on the two drives and never threatened to score the tying touchdown.
“We’re a great team,” Penix said. “The guys fought today. I loved what I saw, but obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted. It hurts, but we’re going to keep pushing.”
The Buckeyes (4-0) lead the Hoosiers (4-1) by a half game with three to play. In their final three games, the Buckeyes play three teams — Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan — that had combined for four victories as of Saturday afternoon, so they will be heavy favorites to advance to the Big Ten Championship game after beating the Hoosiers.
This was Indiana’s big chance, and while it didn’t get the victory it needed to take control of the East Division, it did prove it belongs in the top 10.
In the locker room after the game, Indiana coach Tom Allen told his players he was proud of their heart and toughness and the fight they showed.
“They didn’t quit,” Allen said. “You got a chance to see that they are truly special. We’ve just got to play better. That’s a really good football team we played. They have a substantially-elevated level of play compared to the other teams we’ve played so far.”
Tough call: Ohio State faced a 4th-and-1 situation at the Indiana 7-yard line with 4:39 to play. A touchdown in that situation would have almost clinched the victory, while a field goal would have given the Buckeyes a 10-point lead.
Coach Ryan Day elected to go for the first down, but Justin Fields threw an incomplete pass after scrambling. Indiana took over with a chance to drive for the tying touchdown only to have Ohio State’s defense force a quick three-and-out.
“You always want to be aggressive and not second guess yourself when it doesn’t work,” Day said. “We’ve gone for it there before. We want to continue to do that. They were moving the ball pretty good. I was worried a field goal may not do it. I liked the call. We have to execute it better.”
Looking ahead: The Buckeyes play at Illinois (2-3) next Saturday. The game time has not been announced. The Illini won 41-23 at Nebraska (1-3) on Saturday.
Ohio State has won eight straight games in the series. The teams last met in 2017 with Ohio State winning 52-14.