No. 6 Ohio State is coming off its most impressive win of the season, outscoring No. 7 Penn State 21-3 in the fourth quarter to mount a late 39-38 comeback win against the Nittany Lions. With their eyes on the playoff, the Buckeyes need to continue to carry that momentum into a matchup with Iowa at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the hostile environment of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
Ohio State offense vs. Iowa defense
The Buckeyes were tested against a tough Penn State defense and racked up 529 total yards and scored 39 points. That same Buckeye offense will be faced with another challenging defense against the Hawkeyes. Iowa has allowed only 17.4 points per game (tied for 12th in the nation).
Opponents are averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt through the air, tied for the 12th-lowest nationally. The Hawkeyes’ secondary, led by ballhawk cornerback Joshua Jackson, has led the charge on the passing front and contribute to the 54 passes defended (fifth in the nation). Jackson has defended the most passes in college football this season (17), picking off two and breaking up 15 pass attempts.
Ohio State, which has 300-plus passing yards every game except for its Week 2 loss to Oklahoma, showed no problems launching a successful aerial attack against the Nittany Lions last week when it passed for 328 yards against the fifth ranked pass defense in the nation (5.6 yards per attempt).
Iowa should slow quarterback J.T. Barrett and company down more than other teams have this season, but its defense will need to have its best game of the season against the most potent passing offense it will face all year if it hopes to afford its offense the chance to keep the game close.
Part of the reason Iowa will rely on its passing defense is because the rushing defense has not been near as dominant this season. The Hawkeyes have allowed 4.11 rushing yards per carry, 53rd-fewest in the nation. They have kept opposing offenses to double-digit rush yards just twice this season, while having allowed 100-plus yards six times — including a pair of 200-yard rushing efforts by Penn State and Illinois. Additionally, their defensive line has struggled to beat opposing offensive lines and as a result, the team has only 5.5 tackles for loss per game, tied for 79th-most in the nation.
No player has more of an impact on Iowa’s defensive front seven in stopping the run than linebacker Josey Jewell. The senior is having a career year, leading the Hawkeyes in tackles (79), tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (2.5), while also picking off a pass and forcing and recovering a touchdown.
Matched up a pair of dynamic running backs in freshman phenom J.K. Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber, the Hawkeyes will be faced with arguably their second-most challenging rushing offense this season. Though Dobbins has been limited in his usage thus far this season, the young sparkplug has had no issue making an impact with the time he’s had on the field, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. Even Weber, who has appeared often as a letdown compared to the dynamic freshman, has averaged 4.5 yards per carry and punched in five rushing touchdowns this season.
Iowa’s defense is one of the best Ohio State will face this season, and it has only allowed more than 20 points twice this season, both to ranked to opponents — Penn State scored 21 and No. 15 Iowa State scored 41. That defense will have to play more similar to how it did against Penn State or its other six games and less like it did against the Cyclones if it hopes to come away with a win against the Buckeyes.
Ohio State defense vs. Iowa offense
The defense has been the backbone for Iowa all season. As mentioned earlier, Iowa has held opponents to fewer than 20 points in all but two games. This is the reason the Hawkeyes are 5-3 and not worse, seeing as how they have only scored 20-plus points in just four of their eight games.
What success the Hawkeyes have found has come from the passing game, led by quarterback Nathan Stanley. The 6-foot-4, pro-style quarterback leads an NFL-style offense against the Buckeyes, one that relies on its quarterback to be solely a pocket-passer and rely less on his ability to move. Stanley has completed 57.5 percent of his passes for 1,698 yards with 17 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He does not have a true No. 1 option in the passing game, but seemingly everyone involved is a reliable target for him as five players have racked up over 200 receiving yards this season.
The offensive line has been a bit suspect this season as it has allowed the 72nd-fewest tackles for loss per game (6.13), but Stanley’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly has allowed him to avoid opposing pass-rushes as the slow quarterback has only been sacked 11 times this season.
Ohio State’s passing defense looked dreadful after the first two games of the season, but four straight games against lesser opponents must have built up confidence and warmed up the pass defense as it has looked drastically improved ever since. Though the 349 passing yards against Nebraska don’t look great, a large part of that came late in the game when the secondary had been pulled with Ohio State leading the Cornhuskers by a substantial margin. The Buckeyes then held Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley to just 192 passing yards last week, though he did miss several open opportunities early in the game.
The weakness on the offensive side of the ball has come from Stanley’s supporting cast in the backfield. Iowa’s rushing offense has only averaged 130.75 rushing yards per game, the 100th-most in college football. Neither Hawkeye running back — Akrum Wadley and James Butler — has averaged more than four yards per carry this season.
While Wadley has been effective as a pass-catching back with 268 yards on 19 receptions, Ohio State has only allowed one team’s group of running backs to rack up more than 50 yards in receiving yards (Rutgers with 59 yards) and one team to score a receiving touchdown from a running back (Oklahoma). Overall, opposing running backs have totaled 25 receptions for 205 yards and one touchdown.
Running the ball against Ohio State seems to be a hopeless cause this season, and there seems to be a mismatch in talent between Ohio State’s rushing defense and Iowa. Ohio State has allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards per carry (2.89) in college football and held Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to only 44 yards on 21 carries in last Saturday’s game.
Iowa’s offense could find a tough time getting going against an Ohio State defense that is playing well as of late. Iowa’s offense is far from the most potent Ohio State will face, and though Kinnick Stadium will be a tough environment to play in, expect the Buckeyes to keep Stanley and the rest of the offense quiet Saturday.
Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 27-10
Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 45-10