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Hoosiers come close to miracle, prove legitimacy behind Michael Penix Jr. against Ohio State

Michael Penix Jr. always looks for the big play. It’s just how he is built. 

After a missed Ohio State field goal with a minute left in the third quarter, Indiana took over with a chance to make it a one-score game.

Penix saw David Ellis burning down the sideline, two steps past his man, and put the ball where it needed to be. But the outstretched arms of Ellis couldn’t haul in the deep ball. The ball passed through Ellis’s fingers, and with this missed opportunity, so did the game’s momentum.

On the very next play, Penix looked to convert another first down and add to his career-high 491 passing yards. His pass to Miles Marshall was underthrown and before Indiana knew it, Shaun Wade intercepted the ball and took the game’s momentum with him 36 yards for pick-six.

This game-changing play gave Ohio a 42-21 lead entering the fourth quarter. But even when it looked like everything was crashing down for Indiana, there’s always a big play to be made. Penix and the Hoosier offense didn’t let this play shut them down, scoring two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.

Penix finished the game 27-for-51 with 491 yards, five touchdowns and an interception. While Penix was just six yards shy of setting an Indiana single-game passing record, he ultimately came up a few big plays short. 

"We didn't get the result we wanted,” Penix said. “It hurts...There are a lot of great things that happened on the field, but we have a lot of things we need to get corrected."

Ohio State scraped by to claim a 42-35 victory, and now has a stranglehold on the Big Ten East with a one-game lead over Indiana and only matchups with lowly Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan remaining.

Michael Penix and the Indiana offense (Ross Abdellah/HN)

Sometimes this gunslinger mentality hurts the Hoosiers, but it's also the biggest reason a close loss like this has a different feeling. Indiana has an elite, big-time quarterback, and barring a Buckeye collapse, just played a College Football Playoff team to a one-score game in their stadium.

"Proud of the heart, the toughness of this team,” Tom Allen said. “...You got a chance to see they truly are special."

Yes, Indiana made its fair share of mistakes. David Ellis fumbled the ball deep in the Ohio State red zone, Ty Fryfogle dropped a would-be first down on fourth down and Jamar Johnson lost a fumble after returning an interception into Ohio State territory. Before the game, Indiana led the Big Ten in points off turnovers, but was unable to capitalize on three Fields interceptions.

Plays like that have been typical of Indiana football collapses in recent years, but this game wasn’t a collapse. The Hoosiers fought back from a 35-7 deficit and proved that multiple areas of this team can compete at the highest level.

Fryfogle continued his other-worldly streak Saturday, hauling in seven receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns. Over the past three games, Fryfogle has 25 receptions for 560 yards and six touchdowns. 

Fryfogle became the first player in conference history to post back-to-back 200-yard games in Big Ten play. He did this while being blanketed by future first-round pick Shaun Wade for the majority of the game. 

Even though the Penix-to-Fryfogle connection was electrifying yet again and the defense intercepted Justin Fields a career-high three times, a near perfect game is what it takes to beat Ohio State. And Indiana was far from perfect in a few key areas.

Indiana had more rushing yards before the game started than it did when the game ended. Yes, you read that correctly. The Hoosiers finished the game with negative-one rushing yard on 16 attempts.

Left tackle Caleb Jones was inactive for a second straight week, forcing junior Luke Haggard to start in his place. Guard Mike Katic had missed the previous two games with an injury, but was back Saturday. It was clear the Hoosiers were outmatched in this respect, as the defensive line of Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai and Jonathon Cooper was too much for Indiana to handle.

This forced Indiana to become one-dimensional on offense. Because of its inability to run the ball, the Hoosiers saw themselves in a number of third and long scenarios. Penix completed just four of his 13 passes on third down, and Indiana was 1-for-3 on fourth down. 

These kind of numbers make it surprising that Indiana lost by just one touchdown, but prove that this was one of the most impressive Indiana performances in recent years. Indiana rushed for negative yards, got little-to-no push from the offensive line, was down 35-7 and still had the ball at the end with a chance to force overtime.

At the end of the day, this loss doesn’t do too much to derail what Indiana is building. Realistically, was Indiana ever going to run the table and make the College Football Playoff? 

No. On Saturday, Indiana proved that it can play with one of the very best teams in the country. What this loss does do, however, is put more pressure on the game versus No. 10 Wisconsin. 

Because Indiana’s wins over Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State are nowhere near as valuable as they would look in the majority of seasons, Indiana will still be looking for that signature win.

Allen isn’t counting any moral victories and neither will the bowl game decision makers. 

"The gap has been closed...but we're not there yet,” Allen said. "There's no consolation. We can here to win the game. Close isn't good enough."

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