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Just another week of college football in Columbus this Saturday....except for that Rose Bowl berth and the Big Ten championship that are at stake. TheIowa Hawkeyescome calling at the Horseshoe for a winner-take-all game against an Ohio State team that is 25-4 in November under Jim Tressel, and looks to be hitting their stride at just the right time.
The Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) have strung together three straight impressive wins since the low point of their season at Purdue on Oct. 17, in part because Terrelle Pryor shrugged a good sized monkey off his back with his first bonafide"big game" victorylast week at Penn State. Trying to put solid big game performances back to back won't be easy for the Buckeye sophomore, but his task may be less daunting than the one facing James Vandenberg, the redshirt freshman backup QB for the Hawkeyes, who'll be making his first career start against the league's best defense.
For the Hawkeyes (9-1, 5-1) to pull off the upset, their own strong defense will have to perform up to the standard that helped them to a 9-0 start to their season. Iowa has built a reputation for doing it with mirrors as they repeatedly came from behind to preserve the winning streak, so the Buckeyes know they'll be facing a team with resilience and a certain intangiblesomething that has allowed them to play above expectations all season.
By now you know that Iowa's starting quarterback and emotional leader Ricky Stanzi suffered a serious ankle sprain early in theHawkeyes' lossto Northwestern last week, and largely as a result, Iowa's unbeaten season went south against the Wildcats. Stanzi had surgery on the ankle this week and will definitely miss the run for the roses on Saturday. Less widely known is that Terrelle Pryor also suffered a serious ankle sprain against New Mexico State two weeks ago, and played the entire Penn State game in significant pain.
Tressel explained after the Penn State game why Pryor had the pads off by halftime the previous week, putting to rest the criticism of certain TV commentators who thought it odd for Pryor to be out of uniform for half the game. The sore ankle was a factor for Pryor for the whole game against the Nittany Lions, by his own admission causing him to dive for the goal line on his first quarter TD run, and limiting him to just five rushing attempts for the game, four of which were on called pass plays resulting in scrambles by the QB. The ankle remains sore this week, but presumably less so than a week ago. Word is Pryor will show up Saturday.
Iowa Offense on Reserve Power
If you think losing Stanzi was a tough break for Iowa, consider that the luck of the Hawkeyes has been even worse in their running back corps. After their leading rusher in 2008, Shonn Greene left early for the NFL, the presumed 2009 starter Jewel Hampton went down with a knee injury before the season started. Adam Robinson started the first seven games for the Hawkeyes, and ran for 629 yards and 5 TD's before he too went down with an ankle sprain, leaving the tailback job to Brandon Wegher.
The true freshman Wegher (5' 11", 206) has run pretty well in his two starts and in backup duty, rushing for 502 yards on 131 carries, with six touchdowns, but no running back this season has made much of a living against the OSU defense. For the Hawkeyes to make a run at the Buckeyes, the backup QB will have to throw the ball effectively. Could happen, I suppose.
James Vandenberg, by all accounts, is a tough kid and a gamer. He was the Iowa Offensive Player of the Year in high school and threw for over 8000 yards in his prep career. He had thrown only three career passes at Iowa before he was thrust into the spotlight for the unbeaten Hawkeyes last week, and his debut was not particularly scintillating. Vandenberg threw a pick on his first pass, and proceeded to complete 9 of 27 for 82 yards, plus the interception.
On the upside though, he's got a better arm than Stanzi, and at least will have a full week of preparation as the starter. That, and the Iowa receivers are very good. These guyswillbe throwing the ball down the field...because that's really their only chance.
Hawkeye Receivers Coming Home
Iowa features a couple of Ohio kids at wide receiver, including their leader in receptions, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (yet another Youngstown Cardinal Mooney grad on an FBS roster) who has 31 catches for 553 yards and two TD's. Avon Lake's Trey Stross has good speed, but plays more the role of a possession guy for Iowa, and he has 25 receptions for 368 yards and a score. The group is rounded out by Marvin McNutt (6' 4", 210), the consistent big-playmaker for the Hawkeyes, who has rolled up 547 yards on just 23 catches, fora 23.8 yd average, and five TD's, one for 92 yards.
Add to that group a pair of solid tight ends, including Tony Moeaki, a preseason all-conference selection who has 23 catches for 247 yards and 4 touchdowns. Moeaki has missed three games with a bad ankle(it's an epidemic)and has been held in check with just two catches over the Hawkeyes' last two games, but he can be a weapon down the middle of the field with his combination of speed and size.
The Hawkeyes have the usual group of road-grader type offensive linemen, starting with the celebrated junior left tackle Brian Bulaga (6' 6", 315) another preseason pick for All-Big Ten. Kyle Calloway (6' 7", 315) mans the other tackle spot and he too turns heads among the NFL scouts as a two-year starter. More experience lines up at center in the person of senior Rafael Eubanks, but the Hawkeyes are a little greener at the guards, starting promising freshman Riley Reiff and junior Julian Vandervelde.
Iowa is tied for 9th in the Big Ten in scoring offense at 24.1 points per game, and is also 9th in the conference in rushing offense, totaling 119.2 yards per game. Throwing the ball has gone better for them, as they rank 6th in the league, but those stats can go out the window with Stanzi on the sidelines at least until the bowl game.
One thing you can count on with the Hawkeyes is that they will not beat themselves. Iowa leads the Big Ten with just 34.3 yards per game in penalties. (OSU is 4th at 43.2 ypg)
Iowa kicker Daniel Murray is 5th in the league in scoring, having made 15 of 21 field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards.
Doing it With D
The Iowa offense has been opportunistic if late-arriving in so many games this year, but the defense is the reason they are playing for the Big Ten championship on Saturday. The Hawkeyes rank 3rd in the conference behind OSU and Penn State in both scoring defense (15.9 ppg) and pass defense (173.0 ypg), and they are 6th in rushing defense, giving up 118.7 yards per game.
The back seven was expected to be strong for the Hawkeyes in 2009, but they are getting something of a surprise performance from defensive end Adrian Clayborn. The sculpted 6' 3", 282 lb. Clayborn has emerged as the defensive line leader for Iowa with 7.5 sacks, and 13.5 tackles for loss. Clayborn authored what might be the definitive defensive play for Iowa's season against Penn State when he trampled a PSU blocker to block a punt, and then picked it up on one hop and rambled to the end zone in Iowa's upset win in Happy Valley. He is complemented by Broderick Binns at the other end spot, while juniors Karl Klug and Christian Ballard will start at the defensive tackles.
With first-year starters on the defensive line, the Iowa linebackers and secondary have risen to the challenge. The linebacking group is especially strong, with Pat Angerer leading the unit by getting the most out of what he admits is average size (6' 1", 235) and speed. Angerer is second in the Big Ten in tackles with 106, plus a sack and an interception. Junior outside backer Jeremiha Hunter isn't far behind Angerer in the conference tackle stats, ranking 7th with 81 total stops and two fumble recoveries.
A.J. Edds is a big (6' 4", 244) strongside linebacker that can deliver a hit and fill a hole as well as the other two, making the Iowa defense especially good at stopping the run, and very tough around the goal line. Edds has 55 tackles and three interceptions on the season.
Like the linebackers, the Iowa defensive backs are physical and tough, especially at safety. Brett Greenwood and Tyler Sash are both playmakers and hard hitters. Greenwood missed the Northwestern game, but will probably play Saturday. He has 57 tackles and three interceptions, while Sash leads the conference with six interceptions, and has 70 tackles for the season.
Sophomore Shaun Prater will probably start at one corner spot with Amari Spievey on the other side. Both are better than average cover corners who will make plays on the football and get physical with the wide receivers.
Iowa also features one of the league's better punters in Ryan Donahue, who is punting for a 42.2 yd average, with a long of 73 yards.
What's Up With the Good Guys
Although Pryor is still nursing the ankle soreness, the rest of the Buckeyes are getting a little healthier coming down the stretch. Injured offensive tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts have both been practicing this week, and Coach Bollman expects both of them to play some Saturday.
Dan Herron is questionable with his ongoing ankle problems, but Brandon Saine and Jordan Hall should both be at full strength at tailback for OSU this week.
To the surprise of no one, Buckeye defensive tackle Cameron Heyward was named Big Ten defensive player of the week for his 11-tackle, 3-TFL, 2-sack performance against the Nittany Lions. Heyward also won the Walter Camp National defensive player of the week award. There are advantages to playing on national TV.
Ray Small was named Big Ten special teams player of the week for his 130 yards in punt returns against PSU.
Outlook - Lookout
It's hard to imagine the Buckeyes coming out flat or overconfident with the Rose Bowl and their 5th consecutive Big Ten championship on the line Saturday.....but then we never seem to get what we expect in college football, do we?
The line is 17, and for lots of reasons I think that's too high. Yes, the Hawkeyes will probably struggle to run the ball...but Wegher is a pretty tough back. He's not playingsolelybecause two other guys got hurt. The Hawkeyes should be loose as two-touchdown dogs, and will be able to let it all hang out on offense, and I see them taking some chances trying to make big plays in the passing game. It's not unrealistic to think they'll connect on one or two. I expect Vandenberg to make a generally positive first impression as a starter.
The Iowa defense is certainly solid enough to hold Ohio State below their average of 30 points per game, and their ball-hawking secondary might very well put some points on the board, or at least set up some points by giving the offense a short field with a turnover or two.
These Hawkeyes didn't get to be 9-0 without having something kind of special going on as a team, and they'll be playing for the same conference trophy the Buckeyes are after. In fact, it's reasonable to suggest that they'll want it more...having not won the last four in a row.
Now that the cat's out of the bag about Pryor's sore left ankle, you can bet they'll be after it coming off the bus. Knock him out and it's anybody's ball game.
I think this game is hard fought and close throughout. I think the Hawkeyes play their hearts out and cover the spread. The Iowa defense is good enough to frustrate the Buckeyes, and they will make Pryor pay for any errant throws. Clayborn is a man at defensive end, and the OSU offensive tackles have not made anyone forget Chris Ward or Orlando Pace this year. They need to keep Pryor vertical.
The Buckeyes should wear this overmatched Iowa offense down though, and the Silver Bullets have convinced me with their consistent excellence this year that they are indeed the real deal. Despite the urge to repeat my brilliant gambit of last week, picking against the Buckeyes and then watching them make a liar of me with their best effort of the year....I like the Buckeyes this week....for all the marbles....let's say 24-13.