By Pat Harty
Iowa City, Iowa – Many words have been used to describe Iowa’s style of play under Kirk Ferentz, including some that are less than flattering.
I heard a word recently from a caller on our KCJJ/Allhawkeyes podcast that fits perfectly. The word isn’t meant as criticism or praise, but it’s accurate.
That word is safe.
Iowa does play it safe under Ferentz, because in his opinion, that is the best strategy for winning consistently.
The problem with playing safe is that it sometimes allows teams that aren’t as good on paper to hang around and then ultimately prevail.
But that has nothing to do with the circumstances heading into Saturday’s game against third-ranked Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa as an 18-point underdog is the team that hopes to hang around, and playing it safe could help in that regard.
Playing it safe basically means taking subtle steps to avoid turnovers and risky plays. It helps to be able to run because controlling the tempo and the game clock also are keys in playing it safe.
“You can expect just a great football team to go against,” Ferentz said of Ohio State, which is an incredible 26-1 in road games under head coach Urban Meyer. “And this team is really no different. They have been one of the premiere programs in college football. Go back to the eighties. They have had outstanding players, outstanding coaches, and this team is certainly fits that description.
“We face another big challenge. I think, it's something we have had the experience with, certainly, playing Penn State early in the year, Michigan last year; and really the commonality is it's going to take our absolute best football to have a chance to compete against these guys.”
The good news from Iowa’s perspective is that the last three games in the series have been hotly contested with Ohio State winning by a combined 16 points, including two games by three points apiece.
The bad news is that Iowa has defeated Ohio State just four times since 1963.
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“They are a tremendous football team, and you know, for us to play well, we're going to have to play with a great defensive effort out there, find a rhythm offensively and then just take care of the basic things such as ball security, eliminating the penalties that are drive stoppers, and obviously play well on special teams,” Ferentz said.
In other words, play it safe by avoiding turnovers, mistakes and big plays by the Buckeyes.
It would certainly help if Iowa could sustain a rushing attack. But if Iowa couldn’t run against Northwestern and Minnesota, what makes you think it could run against the star-studded Buckeyes?
Iowa could use its reputation to its advantage in two ways: it could play it safe and try to control the tempo by emphasizing the run, or it could throw caution to the wind and come out slinging in hopes of catching the Ohio State defense by surprise.
Iowa is ranked eighth in the Big Ten in passing offense at 215.1 yards per game and 10th in rushing offense with an average of 130.8 yards per game.
So it’s not unreasonable to think that Iowa could have more success against Ohio State by throwing the ball.
The Buckeye secondary is filled with talented players as usual, but Ohio State is also ranked just eighth in the conference in passing defense.
The Iowa defense has to contain Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who enters Saturday’s game on a roll after completing his final 16 passes in last week’s 39-38 come-from-behind victory over Penn State.
Barrett is a fifth-year senior and a dual-threat quarterback. So he combines experience with the ability to extend plays after a play breaks down.
“It’s awesome, another challenge,” said Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell. “You always want challenges in the game.
“And sometimes, people want the weight on their shoulders. And that’s definitely awesome.”
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The Iowa players also have to believe they can win. They said all the right things on Tuesday while meeting with the media.
Big Ten football players are proud and competitive, so confidence shouldn't be a problem for Iowa on Saturday.
Iowa also will wear alternative uniforms, which should help with team morale.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just another game,” said Iowa sophomore tight end Noah Fant. “They are highly ranked and they are a very good team and they do a lot of things very well. But you can’t hype it up too much because then other factors start playing into it.
“They strap their pads up just like we do and they’re humans just like we are. They’re a very good team and we’re going to have to compete very hard to beat them. We know that and we know that we’re going to come out and compete our hardest.”
The Buckeyes could be in trouble if they take Iowa lightly or are careless with the football. The best team doesn’t always win and Iowa has a knack for rising to the occasion in games like this.
But Ohio State is also one loss from being virtually eliminated from the playoff hunt. Iowa might have had a better chance to prevail on Saturday if the Buckeyes had lost to Penn State last week because Ohio State’s season already would be a considered a huge disappointment by its lofty standards.
Prediction: Ohio State 28, Iowa 13