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Iowa Hawkeyes are big underdogs again. Can these 3 seniors be the difference vs. Ohio State?

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ohio State commands respect, and the Iowa Hawkeyes were certainly giving their esteemed visitors plenty of it before their 2:30 p.m. Saturday showdown at Kinnick Stadium.

“They strap their pads up just like we do and they’re humans just like we are,” sophomore tight end Noah Fant reminded reporters this week after repeated questions about how his Hawkeyes would measure up against the No. 3 team in the nation and one that has beaten Iowa in 12 of the past 13 meetings.

“Other teams you play tend to have a weak link in it or a few struggles at positions, but they don’t,” senior running back Akrum Wadley said of the Buckeyes. “That’s what makes them different than other teams. They’re strong at all positions.”

Running back James Butler was a trusted option out of Iowa's backfield in a 44-41 win at Iowa State on Sept. 9.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose only victory against Ohio State came in 2004, laid out the difference between the teams in stark terms.

“We don't want to go into a recruiting contest against these guys or the (NFL) combine because we'll get killed,” Ferentz said. “We have to understand that we have to really come up and play our absolute best to have a chance.”

The rhetoric — and a Las Vegas betting line that has Ohio State as 18-point favorites — would lead you to believe that the Hawkeyes have no chance.

Don’t believe it.

The Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten Conference) haven’t played a complete game yet this year, but you don’t have to look back too far to find two examples of highly touted visitors coming into Kinnick only to get a comeuppance.

Michigan was ranked third a year ago when Iowa prevailed on the final play in a 14-13 win.

Penn State was fourth in the nation heading into Kinnick just six weeks ago and was pushed to the final play before pulling out a 21-19 win.

Ohio State (7-1, 5-0) may have the biggest aura in the Big Ten. But you got the feeling this week that the Hawkeyes were quietly waiting for another chance to spring a surprise against a program that has owned Iowa like no other.

Keep in mind, too, that for many Hawkeyes this will be their one chance to test themselves against the Buckeyes due to the Big Ten’s imbalanced scheduling. The teams haven’t met since 2013, a 34-24 Ohio State home win. It’s not guaranteed to happen again until 2020.

This is important especially to Iowa seniors like Wadley and middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Here are three other seniors who may not get the attention of those stars but whose actions Saturday could elevate Iowa’s chances considerably:

FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2017, file photo, Iowa running back James Butler (20) breaks a tackle by Iowa State linebacker Joel Lanning, left, during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Ames, Iowa. Iowa’s 131-yard rushing average is 41 under last year’s and lowest since 2012, when the Hawkeyes went 4-8 and won two conference games. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

James Butler

The graduate transfer from Nevada is still wearing a brace on that injured right elbow, the one that kept him out of four games. But the backup running back showed in last Saturday’s win over Minnesota that he remains capable of moving a pile of defenders.

It is the presence of Butler, and his ability to grind out four yards per carry, that frees Wadley to spend more time in the slot or out wide, where he can be dangerous. It also gives Iowa another veteran in the huddle, something Ferentz touted as an underrated attribute.

“Those are some of the best guys in the country and we’re going to see how we match up against them,” Butler said in anticipation of his lone meeting with Ohio State.

Butler also pointed to the alternate uniforms Iowa will be wearing Saturday in front of a black-clad crowd and an ESPN audience. There will be plenty of electricity to draw on.

“If you look good, you play good,” Butler said. “A lot of guys are going to be feeling themselves, so hopefully we play up to it.”

Iowa wide receiver Matt VandeBerg runs down field for a 39-yard touchdown during the Hawkeyes' game against Illinois at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Matt VandeBerg

The senior wide receiver isn’t only valuable in that role (19 catches, 287 yards, two touchdowns). He’s also returning punts again, and could give Iowa a huge lift if he can dent an Ohio State coverage unit that has yet to allow a yard this season.

VandeBerg, a fifth-year player, actually participated in that 2013 loss in Columbus, although he didn’t catch a pass.

He’s looking forward to his dual duties Saturday, as a potential safety-valve receiver for sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley and as a punt returner. He has a long return of 23 yards this year, but feels he was close to breaking a couple for much bigger gains.

“We want to help save field position, but it’s also an opportunity for a spark play,” VandeBerg said. “Special teams is going to be big.”

(Also worth watching — does the return of Butler allow Iowa to put Wadley back on kickoff returns? Ohio State surrendered a 97-yard touchdown to Penn State’s Saquon Barkley on the opening kick last week.)

Oct 21, 2017; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Jeremy Larkin (28) is tackled by Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Ben Niemann (44) during the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Niemann

Jewell is the all-American on Iowa’s defense. Junior cornerback Josh Jackson may be on the verge of joining him.

Niemann, who plays the “Leo” spot alongside Jewell, may be as valuable as either. The 6-foot-3, 233-pounder is versatile enough to cover wide receivers down the sideline or shed tight ends and make tackles in the run game.

Niemann has 49 tackles and five passes broken up. After helping stifle Minnesota’s ground attack last week, he figures to spend more time in the slot Saturday, keeping one eye on elusive Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett and the other on the variety of talented receivers he likes to target (nine Buckeyes caught passes last week).

“I have to be able to be physical enough to play in the box and play against offensive linemen, but I have to have that speed and agility to be out in the slot,” Niemann said. “Every game presents a different challenge.

“In the big games (against Michigan and Penn State), we were in those, won one of them. It’s just effort, playing hard, being assignment-sound. If we want to be in this game and have an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter, we’re going to have to execute and play hard like we did in those games.”

No. 3 OHIO STATE (7-1, 5-0 Big Ten) at IOWA (5-3, 2-3)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 2:30 p.m., ESPN (announcers: Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Todd McShay)

LINE: Buckeyes by 18

WEATHER: 51 degrees with early rain giving way to overcast skies; winds from east at 5-10 mph