COLUMBUS — When Tom Allen became defensive coordinator at Indiana last year, he handed out 3x5 index cards to his players and asked them to predict the Hoosiers’ 2016 record.
For anyone who didn’t predict a perfect record, Allen asked them to specify opponents against which they expected to lose. Not surprisingly, the Hoosiers gave Allen incredulous looks before complying. Equally unsurprisingly, Ohio State was listed often as one of the teams likely to beat Indiana.
Allen didn’t ask the players to sign their cards, but he did have a stark message for those who predicted defeat against the Buckeyes.
“I said, ‘OK, when we go to Columbus this season, you’re not coming. Stay home. I don’t want you anywhere around our football team. If you don’t believe, don’t get on the bus,’ ” Allen, now the Hoosiers’ head coach, said in July at Big Ten media days. “And I meant it.”
When Indiana did play Ohio State, Allen didn’t leave any of his players home. By then, the confidence Allen wanted to instill in his defense had started to take hold as it showed dramatic improvement in 2016.
Now that Allen has taken over as coach for the fired Kevin Wilson, Ohio State’s new offensive coordinator, the Hoosiers are awash in self-belief. In fact, they are billing their game against the visiting Buckeyes as the biggest home opener in school history.
With that improved defense and big-armed quarterback Richard Lagow, Indiana believes it can do more than merely throw a scare into the Buckeyes — as the Hoosiers have done in recent years.
But Ohio State is a three-touchdown favorite, and the Buckeyes are not conceding any emotional advantage to the Hoosiers. When told of how IU labeled this game, Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley had a retort.
“It’s the biggest game in our history,” he said.
One might beg to differ, but Worley wanted to make a point.
“We’re not going into that game like it’s just another game,” he said. “Every time we play a team, it seems it’s that atmosphere. We’re going to get everyone’s best shot.
“In order to uphold this great tradition, we have to give it our best shot. If it’s their biggest game in the history of their school, it’s going to be the biggest in the history of our school, too.”
The Buckeyes have waited eight long months to get back on the field after their 31-0 loss to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. They have insisted that clunker hasn’t been a major topic of discussion inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, but the memory lingers.
“You can never forget that,” senior defensive end Jalyn Holmes said, “but that’s what happened and we know the reasons for that and we have to learn from that.”
The Buckeyes have a loaded defense, even though they’ve had to rebuild much of their secondary after losing three defensive backs as NFL first-round picks. Their defensive line is particularly formidable and deep. If Indiana is to have a shot at an upset, the Hoosiers’ largely rebuilt offensive line will have to hold up.
“To me, it’s something that keeps you up at night,” Allen said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge for our group. The game is won up front on both sides of the ball and it won’t be any different on Thursday.”
The Buckeyes hope to overwhelm Indiana with waves of players on offense as well. Ohio State plans to rotate at least six wide receivers. Look for freshman running back J.K. Dobbins to get a significant number of snaps, especially if Mike Weber’s hamstring remains an issue.
The Buckeyes have questions of their own beyond the secondary. They feel confident that their issues in 2016 with the offensive line and receivers have been addressed, but Meyer concedes the unknowns.
“The fact (is) we’re going to be playing some guys at the back of our defense who haven’t played much or at all,” he said. “And our receiving corps, though I really love where they’re at, they’re unproven.”
Every team has questions entering a season. But there’s a sense among the Buckeyes that they’re ready to unveil what they expect to be a special team.
“I like our team,” Meyer said. “I like where we’re at.”
In other words, if Meyer handed out index cards to his players, he probably wouldn’t threaten to leave anyone in Columbus.