BLOOMINGTON — With three senior starters, the Indiana offensive line has played up to expectations to start the 2019 season.
In pass protection, the Hoosiers have been close to perfect, not allowing a sack in two games.
But IU’s offensive line is about to face its first big challenge Saturday at Memorial Stadium against No. 6 Ohio State. The Buckeyes, led by quick, 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior defensive end Chase Young, have recorded nine sacks and 19 tackles for loss in two games.
Young already has three sacks after posting 10 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2018.
“It’s on us to try to keep him off the quarterback,” IU senior left tackle Coy Cronk said. “But with that type of guy, you’ve got to throw different looks, give him different curveballs, try to get his eyes dirty. You gotta play hard against him. Yeah, he’s a special talent, but it’s on us to stop him.”
Cronk is one of three senior starters on IU’s starting offensive line, along with center Hunter Littlejohn and right guard Simon Stepaniak. The two new additions to IU’s offensive line, junior left guard Harry Crider and redshirt sophomore right tackle Caleb Jones, will be making their first career Big Ten starts.
Stepaniak said it will be important for the seniors on the offensive line to show leadership throughout the game.
“They are going to have positive plays on us,” Stepaniak said. “So just keeping a level-headed mind, not getting down in the dumps, like ‘hey, they make a play on us, and we’re going to come back 1-0 and make a play on them.’”
The 6-8, 358-pound Jones has taken on the responsibility of protecting the blind side of left-handed quarterback Michael Penix Jr. so far. Stepaniak expects Jones to rise of the challenge of Big Ten play.
“Big Caleb, he’s not a guy who is going to shy away from anything,” Stepaniak said. “So I found out I really don’t have to be saying ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to be better this week’ and stuff like that. This dude knows what he’s getting into, and he knows how to attack every day. So it’s not like babying him along.”
IU coach Tom Allen said getting Jones playing time last year against Iowa exposed him to the pressure of conference games. Allen said the offensive line will need to be sharper in all areas in facing Ohio State’s bigger, more athletic defensive front.
“It’s a heightened sense of technical precision you have to have in everything that you do,” Allen said. “Whether it’s the communication piece or whether it’s the footwork, your hand placement, the line calls and checks and adjustments.”
Cronk would like to see IU’s offensive line set a physical tone by helping establish the run game as well. IU has been up and down running the football this season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry with 262 yards. Ball State loaded the box against the Hoosiers in IU’s season opener and limited IU’s running backs to just 69 yards rushing.
“We’ve been getting different looks and stuff, but we are still not moving people like we need to move them,” Cronk said. “If we want to be a team like Ohio State, we’ve got to establish some sort of run game. The moment we become one-dimensional is the moment when their pass rush can really shine.”
IU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said better communication on the offensive line led to better results in the run game in the second half against Ball State, which carried over into IU’s second game against Eastern Illiniois.
“We can run the football better,” DeBoer said. “The o-line takes a lot of pride in that, has to do a better job, but there were a lot of positives, too. I know they are up for the challenge. We’ve got three seniors over there that want to be great, that want the offensive line to be the pride of the football team.”
For IU’s offensive line, it’s a chance to make a statement and prove they are one of the best units in the Big Ten.
“If you want to be a great team, you’ve got to have a great offensive line,” Cronk said. “So we take pride in that.”