Iowa’s last game against Ohio State was in 2017, yet it feels like half a lifetime ago. The heavily favored Buckeyes rolled into Kinnick Stadium ranked #3 in the nation on the strength of their high-powered offense led by Heisman candidate quarterback JT Barrett. Iowa entered he contest with a disappointing 5-3 record and facing serious questions after two poor offensive showings in a row. Few Hawkeye fans came into the game optimistic; Iowa had missed its shot to knock off one of the country’s top teams when it fell to Penn State at home earlier that season, and the Buckeyes, fresh off a dramatic comeback win against that same Nittany Lions squad, seemed nearly untouchable.
What followed was one of the most stunning wins in Hawkeye history and arguably the most impressive single game performance of any team under Kirk Ferentz. Iowa took control of the contest from the very first play from scrimmage (a pick-six thrown to Amani Hooker) and never looked back, dominating Ohio State in all three phases of the game. The Hawkeyes’ 55-24 win sent shockwaves through the college football landscape and gave many Iowa fans hope that their young offensive coordinator had finally cracked the code to bringing their team into the 21st century.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Five years later, Iowa is preparing to face Ohio State under similar circumstances. The Buckeyes once again enter the game as a Top Five team and an offensive juggernaut, while the Hawkeyes appear rudderless thanks to their own offensive woes. Yet the separation between the 2022 Iowa and Ohio State squads is far greater than in 2017. Iowa’s offense has scored seven touchdowns all season, while Ohio State’s offense scored eleven touchdowns in a single game. Iowa has nowhere near the offensive talent of the 2017 squad, and fans would kill to have the likes of Nate Stanley, Akrum Wadley, Noah Fant, and TJ Hockenson suit up for them on Saturday. Add in the fact that Iowa will be playing this game in Columbus where it has not won a game since 1991 and it will likely take an even more impressive performance than the one from five years ago to knock off the Buckeyes this time around.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa slow down the Buckeye passing attack?
Ohio State’s passing game has been nothing less than dynamic this season. The Buckeyes boast the top passing offense in the conference and average 315.7 passing yards per game, while their quarterback CJ Stroud has a commanding lead for the nation’s highest passer rating (207.57) and is tied for the nation’s most TD passes with 24. Stroud has two of the best receivers in football to throw to in Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr., and his best receiver Jackson Smith-Njigba has barely played this season but may return to the field this weekend.
Can Iowa’s secondary hold up in coverage against such a formidable aerial attack? The Hawkeye pass defense has been absolutely elite this year, holding opponents to the third-fewest passing yards in football (154 per game) and the second-lowest opponent passer rating (97.2). Iowa’s secondary played a massive role in the 2017 upset over Ohio State, pulling in five interceptions and locking down the Buckeye receivers for the majority of the game. Iowa may need their back four to play a similarly disruptive role this season to have a chance to repeat their performance from five years ago.
The Hawkeyes also need a massive game from their defensive line if they hope to slow down Ohio State’s dynamic passing attack. Iowa’s front four looked elite to start the season but has fallen off over the past few games, failing to pressure the quarterback or disrupt the opposing passing game. As excellent as Iowa’s secondary has been this year, they will need to use their linebackers and safeties to help in pass coverage if they hope to contain the Buckeye receivers. Can the line create enough pressure up front to prevent Stroud from dissecting the defense from a clean pocket? The Buckeyes have allowed only four sacks through six games, so it will take an excellent performance from the front four to get the job done his week.
2. Can Iowa find a way to stop the run?
Unfortunately for Iowa’s defense, Ohio State’s offensive prowess is not limited to its aerial attack. OSU is averaging 228 yards per game on the ground this season thanks in part to running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams. The Buckeye line has also played a major role in the team’s rushing success. Ohio State’s backs have been stopped at or before the line of scrimmage on only 6.9% of their carries, which is the lowest stuff rate in the nation (Iowa, for reference, is stuffed on 22% of its runs, giving them a ranking of 119th in the country). Iowa’s front seven will need to have an excellent game to slow down the Buckeyes’ ground attack. The Hawkeye run defense has been the weakness of a unit that has been otherwise spectacular this season, allowing 100-yard rushers in three of six contests. Ohio State will have a huge advantage in this game if they manage to control the game on the ground and force the Hawkeyes to commit additional defenders to the box to stop the Buckeye offense. Iowa’s defensive strategy against Michigan saw the Hawkeyes focus on stopping the passing attack, which created several open running lanes for Wolverine running back Blake Corum to exploit. Iowa’s front seven will need to turn in a better performance this week if they hope to slow down a dangerous Buckeye ground game and prevent Ohio State from dominating time of possession.
3. Can Iowa’s offense catch the Buckeyes off guard?
In a matchup between the second-best offense in the nation and the worst scoring attack in the sport, it is difficult to imagine the latter team having much of a chance to pull out a victory. Yet both of Iowa’s last two games against OSU have seen the Hawkeyes exploit weaknesses in the Buckeye defense and produce surprisingly strong offensive games. Iowa used its Iowa used its tight ends to create mismatches and attacked the Buckeyes vertically in both 2013 and 2017, and the latter contest saw the Hawkeyes deploy some of their most creative play calling in recent memory to keep the opposing defense on its heels. Iowa will need to concoct a similarly effective gameplan to have any chance at victory this Saturday.
If anything, there is an argument to be made that Iowa could benefit from the low expectations surrounding its offense. Ohio State’s next game involves a road trip to Happy Valley for a pivotal divisional game against a dangerous Penn State team. Given how predictably broken Iowa’s offense has been this year, one could hardly blame Ohio State’s defensive coaches for looking ahead a bit this week. If Iowa managed to use its bye week to identify exploitable weaknesses in the Buckeye defense the way they did in 2013 and 2017, perhaps they will have a shot to catch their opponent off guard. Even if Iowa plays a nearly perfect defensive game, the Buckeye offense is good enough that the Hawks will need to score a handful of touchdowns to stay in the game. Unless Iowa’s offense looks dramatically better than it has through the first six weeks, this may be too tall a task for the team to accomplish.