There's a kind of magic to America's heartland, and in our popular imagination, perhaps no place typifies this like Iowa.
"The children must be crying," Jack Kerouac once wrote of Iowa, "in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out." In Iowa are cornfields and endlessly hitchhikeable roads; in Iowa James Earl Jones convinced Kevin Costner to build his field so that people might be able to chase the ever-fleeting past for just a little while longer.
The Ohio State Buckeyes head to Iowa this week not to chase the past, but to take one more step toward the future: a bid to the College Football Playoff. It's been a bumpy road, to be sure, but Urban Meyer's squad has reeled off six consecutive wins, including a dramatic and stunning victory against No. 2 Penn State last weekend. They face a much less sexy test this Saturday when they face off against an Iowa team whose specialty seems to be dragging opponents down into the mud to die. (That the Hawkeyes occasionally suffocate first is of little concern to them.)
Kirk Ferentz's team is coming off of a tight 17-10 victory over Minnesota, a throwback Big Ten game if ever there were one. Most times it feels like the Hawkeyes are still playing the football that was played decades ago, with a mostly-uninspired offense playing second fiddle to a beefy defense that knows how to hurt.
But then they do things like throwing the ball to running back Akrum Wadley, who we might hype up as a great H-back were he to play in Urban Meyer's offense. Wadley's running average has been disappointing this season, given his potential, but his receiving stats—19 catches, 14.1 yards per catch, three TDs—are eye-popping for a guy who's nominally supposed to be running between the tackles.
Whatever the Hawkeyes are—a chimera of parts from football's past, present, and future—they pose an interesting matchup for the high-flying Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
Firing on (most) cylinders. The Buckeyes still have plenty of kinks to work out. Special teams has been a roller coaster, penalties have been plentiful, and the play-calling has been conservative at some of the worst times imaginable.
(*Stephen A. Smith voice*) BUT. Just about everything else is humming for Ohio State. J.T. Barrett is playing like he’s on a mission to destroy the world. The defensive line seems to decide weekly that a different member will eat the most in that particular game. The thunder-and-lightning combo of Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins is a terrifying one when it’s balanced well by the coaches. The list goes on.
Outside looking in. The first College Football Playoff rankings came out this week, and Ohio State found themselves sitting at No. 6 on the list, just behind the team that handed them their only defeat of the season, Oklahoma. That makes for pretty good incentive to keep pounding opponents into the ground. An undefeated finish to the season with a win over Wisconsin in the B1G title game should be enough to get the Buckeyes into their third playoff in four years, but beating the tar out of everyone along the way would certainly bolster their résumé.
The Drago factor. Like Rocky's most blatantly propaganda-driven foe, the Buckeyes are both freakishly athletic and ruthlessly efficient. Drago literally killed an opponent in the ring, while Ohio State has done it figuratively: in the contests between the Oklahoma loss and the Penn State win, the Buckeyes scored 266 points while allowing just 56.
They've managed that, in part, by operating the second-most efficient offense in all of college football. The cold, steady drubbings they've dished out to opponents this season have been clinical in their precision. The Buckeyes have a 53.8% success rate on offensive plays, are the No. 1 offense in the country in the opportunity rate category (how often five yards are gained when there are five yards available, the metric that puts the feather in the o-line's cap), and are the second-best in college football at avoiding stuffs at or behind the line of scrimmage. If you're into advanced stats or just ruthless dismantling of opponents, you're probably fanning yourself looking at these numbers.
Iowa’s biggest advantages
The look-ahead trap and the hangover. Two tales as old as time in college football: a powerhouse team leaves it all on the field in dramatic fashion against a talented rival and then sleepwalks through their next game against an inferior opponent; a talented team with ranked opponents and rivals looming on the schedule fails to adequately prepare for the mediocre team they play beforehand. Both scenarios are in play here. The Buckeyes’ fourth quarter against Penn State last weekend took years off of the lives of everyone watching, so what it did to the guys who were actually playing is probably worse. And with hated opponents on the menu in two of the next three contests—Michigan State and Michigan—you could understand everyone involved feeling as though Iowa isn’t a whole lot to worry about. Add in the Buckeyes being the putative favorites to head to the B1G title game against No. 9 Wisconsin and you’ve got a whole lot of potential for looking ahead.
This can’t win the game by itself for the Hawkeyes. Even a sleepwalking Buckeye team has enough juice on both sides of the ball to win an ugly game. But if Iowa can get on the board early and hang close, anything could happen.
Josey Jewell is back. If you haven’t heard of Josey Jewell, you’re not paying close enough attention. Iowa’s star middle linebacker is a Butkus Award finalist who puts up eye-popping numbers as the Hawkeyes’ defensive leader. (Want proof? He has 22 more tackles than the next-highest player on his team.)
Jewell suffered a shoulder injury in Iowa’s win over Illinois a few weeks ago, one which was serious enough to sideline him for the Northwestern game. They ended up losing that one to the Wildcats by a touchdown. He returned against Minnesota last weekend, and his presence made all the difference in another game decided by just a touchdown—his 11 total tackles and two QB hurries led the team in a game short on scoring opportunities.
He’ll have his hands full against the Buckeyes, but playing against Jewell is hardly a prize for them, either. He’s an excellent run stuffer, athletic in pass coverage, and an expert at haranguing QBs.
Dampening the fuse. A few days ago, I broke down one of Iowa’s finest defensive attributes: stifling opposing teams’ explosive play opportunities. Explosive plays (defined more fully here) are a measure of yards gained from each spot on the field, which has a corresponding point value assigned to it. In other words: how often did you execute successful plays, and when you did, just how far downfield did you get?
The stingy Iowa defense isn’t super efficient—teams can and have marched on them—but they also don’t give up a lot of home run plays. Granted, outside of Saquon Barkley, they’ve yet to face a who’s who of college football’s big play guys, but still: even with Barkley in Penn State’s backfield, Iowa only allowed 21 points to the Nittany Lions. That’s mighty impressive.
F+ Projection: Ohio State 34, Iowa 18
Win probability: Ohio State 82%
How to watch, stream, listen to Iowa v. Ohio State:
Game time: Saturday, Nov. 4, 3:30 p.m. ET
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
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