Quarterback Nate Stanley sizes up the challenge and the plan. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Everything the Iowa football program will go against Saturday at Kinnick Stadium is daunting.
Third-ranked Ohio State (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten Conference) has it all. It’s no wonder the Buckeyes are a 17½-point favorite against the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-3) for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game on ESPN.
“They’re really good. They’re good at all positions,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said. “We’ve got to stick to what we do best. We’ve got to make it a fistfight.”
Under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeye program is known for bringing the fight, especially as an underdog.
But a fight won’t be enough against such a dynamic opponent.
This offensive line is probably the best Iowa has faced this season. Same statement applies to the defensive line.
Ohio State ranks second in the nation in total offense, second in scoring offense and 12th in total defense. In J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes have a talented dual-threat quarterback, notoriously a problem for Iowa’s read-and-react defense.
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Does Iowa even have a chance? Sure.
The Hawkeyes beat then-unbeaten Michigan as a 24-point underdog one November ago. They took heavily favored Penn State to the final play in September.
But the path in this one is narrow, no question.
There are four “musts” for Iowa to get it done; to deliver another memorable Kinnick moment while derailing Ohio State’s path to the College Football Playoff.
Iowa running back Akrum Wadley tells us what the offense needs to do Saturday. Chad Leistikow/The Register
No self-inflicted mistakes
Well, that’s kind of a biggie out of the gate.
Out of 150 or so snaps in a game, obviously 150 aren’t going to be perfect for the Hawkeyes.
But I’m talking about no more dropped passes. When Nate Stanley throws a ball that hits you in the hands, you catch the ball.
I’m talking about no more crucial penalties. The late false-start on fourth-and-inches at Northwestern? Can’t happen. The three holding penalties that stalled drives against Minnesota? Can’t happen.
I’m talking about efficient defensive communication.
Don’t give the Buckeyes — who get a first down or touchdown on an incredible 42.5 percent of their offensive plays — any more space than the little they already need.
“You can’t make those mistakes you’ve maybe made (against) a different team,” linebacker Josey Jewell said. “This is definitely a time where the errors have to be minimized.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz's opening statement at Tuesday’s news conference. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Aggressive play calling = long drives
Brian Ferentz, after eight games, your No. 1 offensive weapon has been uncovered: Nate Stanley.
The guy can throw. The first-year starting quarterback also showed against Minnesota, he can even escape a pass rush when needed. And he’s even got the overthrows seemingly cured.
On first downs against Northwestern, Stanley went 7-for-10 for 124 yards.
On first downs against Minnesota, he was 8-for-9 for 126 yards — Stanley's lone incompletion a perfectly thrown pass that caromed off Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s facemask for a Gophers interception.
Ohio State’s only glimmer of a weak spot is against the pass, where it allows 6.3 yards per attempt (which still ranks a credible 30th nationally). But it ranks sixth against the run at 2.9 yards per attempt).
The overall Hawkeye strategy cannot be to try to win 14-13 like it did against Michigan. Ohio State will move the football; it averages a nation-best 29.5 first downs per game. It's going to have to win by something like 27-24 or 28-27.
Iowa needs long drives that end with seven points. That means aggression that doesn’t quit. Run, run, then a pass on third-and-8 isn't a formula for sustained success.
“Obviously, they have a really high-powered offense and can put up points,” said Stanley, who ranks fourth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency. “If we can establish long drives and maintain field position and time of possession, that’ll help out our defense a lot. Just being able to keep guys like J.T. off the field.”
Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell is playing through a shoulder injury he suffered Oct. 7 against Illinois. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Score on defense
Another big ask.
But it needs to happen. And I’ll give the defense partial credit for an interception or fumble return that sets the offense up with a red-zone situation. I’ll even count a special-teams touchdown.
Back in 2008, when Iowa stunned third-ranked Penn State 24-23, do you remember what happened on the Nittany Lions’ first offensive series? Adrian Clayborn’s bull rush forced a fumble that (after a short punt) ultimately gave Iowa the ball at Penn State’s 25. Two plays later, Iowa was already ahead 7-0.
Last year against Michigan, Jaleel Johnson’s powerful tackle was worth a two-point safety in another one-point Iowa win.
This season, the Hawkeye defense has recovered only three fumbles in eight games. It has just one forced turnover in the past two games.
That’s not enough. And Iowa has enough playmakers — Joshua Jackson, Amani Hooker, Jewell — to make something big happen.
“The more three-and-outs we can get, the better,” outside linebacker Ben Niemann said. “I just think we need to create turnovers, too. The last couple games, we haven’t done a good job of doing that.
“If we can get our offense more possessions this game, that’ll be huge.”
Iowa senior linebacker Ben Niemann says Buckeyes have the best offensive line the Hawkeyes have faced this year. Mark Emmert/HawkCentral
Don’t stop believing
Under Urban Meyer, Ohio State is 26-1 in road games.
That record is nuts.
And even if you can get the Buckeyes down, they won’t go away. They rallied from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit last week against Penn State.
It’s going to take a full 60 minutes of Iowa football. (And maybe even overtime, if it’s anything like the 2009 game in Columbus, Ohio.)
That also means playing a good first 30 minutes, something the Hawkeyes have done when surprisingly successful in big, home-underdog situations before.
If players need any further belief, look across the state at one of college football's best stories.
Iowa State was a 30-point underdog when it won outright at Oklahoma last month; that Oklahoma team earlier won at Ohio State; this Iowa team earlier won at Iowa State.
I noticed a quiet confidence from Iowa’s players in interviews this week.
“It’s awesome coming in as the underdogs," Jewell said.
That mentality is a good start.
Blue-collar Iowa typically plays its best when doubters are everywhere.
“It's something we have had the experience with, certainly, playing Penn State early in the year, Michigan last year,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And, really, the commonality is it's going to take our absolute best football to have a chance to compete against these guys.”
He's got that right.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Keeping it close
Iowa has lost just five regular-season games in the past nine-plus seasons by 17 or more points. Ohio State is favored by 17½ points in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Kinnick Stadium.
2016: Penn State 41, Iowa 14 (road)
2014: Minnesota 51, Iowa 14 (road)
2013: Wisconsin 28, Iowa 9 (home)
2012: Michigan 42, Iowa 17 (road)
2012: Penn State 38, Iowa 14 (home)
Note: Iowa has four bowl losses by at least 17 points in the same span (2011 Insight, 2015 TaxSlayer, 2016 Rose, 2017 Outback).