It won’t be a new sight when fifth-year offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak looks up and sees a gray helmet with a red strip down the center, white Buckeye stickers lining the sides.
Stepaniak is from Cincinnati. He grew up as a University of Cincinnati fan more than anything, but he was always surrounded by Ohio State.
This year as he lines up for the final time against the program that has dominated the Big Ten over the past decade, he’s trying to not look at it any differently.
“I strive to attack every game equally, we respect all of our opponents,” Stepaniak said. “Ohio State is just the next team on the list.”
“It’s just another game for us,” quarterback Michael Penix said. “We know it’s a big one. We’re just going to come out and execute like we always do. We always go through a good practice, but we’re going to make sure we have a great practice this week and we’re going to come out really good on Saturday.”
While the players are trying to treat this game just as they did Eastern Illinois, they know it won’t be the same. They know what they are about to face.
“You can’t get caught up in the pinstripes like the Yankees of old,” defensive coordinator Kane Wommack said. “You got to lock in and focus on your job. This group, I don’t have to worry about that too much because they’re very young and very hungry group in terms of what we do on defense. Some of these guys, they came here to win a game like this.”
The older players such as Stepaniak have seen those pinstripes before. He’s helping younger players, such as Penix who will be facing Ohio State for the first time, learn to be ready.
And it will be a measuring stick for how far IU’s come.
“That’s why you recruit, that’s why you develop,” head coach Tom Allen said. “I guess this is a test case to see where we are.”
IU opened as a 14-point underdog to Ohio State, the smallest margin in recent memory. IU has put up consecutive program-record-setting recruiting classes, working to close the gap against Ohio State and the other top programs.
IU has hung around for two and sometimes even three quarters against the Buckeyes in years past, but it has never put together a full 60 minutes against Ohio State. It’s the Buckeyes’ ability to do that which sets them apart.
“Bottom line is that we have to finish,” Allen said. “And it’s not about just competing with them and feeling good about that. Certain stages of your program you feel that’s what you want to do. And to me, we’ve been there and we’ve done that, so now we’ve got to finish.”
And that’s why beating that type of a program, putting a signature win on an Allen era which lacks one, would be so influential to a building program.
“Those are program-changing opportunities and program-changing wins when they occur, and they don’t happen as often as you want them to, but that’s what makes them special,” Allen said. “And so there’s no question that they’re who this whole conference has been chasing.”
It’s a team like Ohio State that forces even the experienced players like Stepaniak to make adjustments. They knew to put the dominant win over Eastern Illinois behind them as soon as the final whistle sounded.
As Stepaniak helps his quarterback and young right tackle Caleb Jones get through the week of preparation, he too has to adjust from facing Ball State and Eastern Illinois to facing Chase Young and the top-tier NFL talent on the Ohio State defensive line. The challenge steps up quickly for IU’s offensive line has left Penix virtually untouched through the first two games.
“I trust my offensive line, I believe in everything with the offense that coach DeBoer is going to put us in the right situation,” Penix said.
While the offensive line has kept Penix upright, it hasn’t had the same type of running game push in the first two weeks that it had a year ago. The offensive line took the run game struggles personally in week one. Those mistakes were cleaned up to an extent in week two, but the chip on their shoulder is still there.
The defense cleaned up its biggest flaw from Ball State as well, trimming 25 missed tackles to nine and eliminating 150 yards compared to the 181 yards allowed due to missed tackles against Ball State.
“To see our guys execute and stay focused and fix some of things we thought we left out there against Ball State, it’s really encouraging,” Wommack said.
The defensive improvements led to a game where IU held Eastern Illinois to 116 total yards, though it came without a turnover.
But now IU will face quarterback Justin Fields. The same defensive lineman Stepaniak has lined up against will be bigger, faster and stronger than what he saw in the first two weeks. The same goes for the defensive backs Penix will be throwing against, and the receivers Andre Brown will have to cover, and the running backs Reakwon Jones will have to tackle.
They’re just trying not to get caught up in the pinstripes.
“We’re on the field today, as I talked to our team, it’s the most important game of the season, and I asked the question why,” Allen said. “And their response was, ‘Because it’s the next one.’ That’s where I think it begins, the mindset of, yes, this is obviously a huge game for us because it’s the first conference game, it’s a home game, and it’s the Ohio State Buckeyes.”
News and Notes
- LB Cam Jones practiced Monday, and will be re-evaluated on Tuesday. As of Monday, his status for Saturday’s game remains up in the air, and more clarity will come Thursday.
- DB Reese Taylor played as expected Saturday and is now a 100% full-go barring any further injury. He’s back to full strength despite missing much of fall camp.
- WR Whop Philyor was the Offensive Player of the Week and DE James Head the Defensive Player of the Week. LB Aaron Casey was the Special Teams Player of the Week.