Bleacher Report's Creature vs Creature series rolls into Columbus, Ohio, as the Iowa Hawkeyes (9-1, 5-1) and the Ohio State Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) square off with the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl bid on the line.
It's been a while since Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes have been in the driver's seat of the Big Ten, yet that's where Iowa stands despite suffering its first loss of the season to the scrappy Northwestern Wildcats.
The Buckeyes come into this Saturday's contest riding high after a commanding 24-7 victory over Penn State—in a packed Beaver Stadium no less.
As expected, all odds are against Iowa and more than a little luck will need to be drawn upon in all aspects of the game if the Hawkeyes are to clinch the Big Ten's top spot.
Hawkeyes on defense
Iowa also has a road victory over Penn State on its resume. The defense and special teams were keys to the Hawkeyes' win.
That was not the case for the Hawkeyes last week against Northwestern, as the defense could not find ways to get off the field in the clutch.
Many of Iowa's defensive woes were caused by the Wildcat rushing attack, led by quarterbacks Mike Kafka and Dan Persas.
Terrelle Pryor averages just over 60 yards per game on the ground. Considering Northwestern quarterback Dan Persas and running back Scott Concannon had no trouble finding holes in the clutch, Pryor will run wild if the defense line and linebackers can't plug the gaps.
While the defense needs to pressure Pryor, the Hawkeye secondary must capitalize on any errant throws. The Hawks were unable to capitalize on a couple bad throws by Northwestern quarterbacks. Room for error is minimal for the Hawkeye secondary. Tipped passes must translate to interceptions.
Pryor will not defeat a team with his arm. The Hawks need to take the run away from him. Do that, and Big Ten's third-ranked pass defense and first-ranked intercepting secondary will take over from there.
The Hawkeyes could see the return of safety and leader Brett Greenwood this weekend, as he practiced with the team on Tuesday. Greenwood's presence would help revamp a Hawkeye secondary that wasn't able to capitalize on several opportunities last week against Northwestern.
The Buckeye offense is not the best OSU has ever fielded by any means, and they are capable of being smothered.
Wisconsin held the Buckeyes to 186 total yards. A defensive effort similar to that would go a long way toward ensuring a Hawkeye victory.
The special teams and defense will be relied upon more than ever in Columbus, as Iowa starter Ricky Stanzi is out for the remainder of the regular season with a severe ankle sprain, leaving redshirt-freshman James Vandenberg at the helm for Iowa.
Hawkeyes on offense
Whether it was questionable play-calling, poor performance by the offensive line, or the unlucky loss of team-leader Stanzi, the Iowa offense needs to operate in flawless fashion.
That is far easier said than done against the Big Ten's top overall defense.
The Buckeyes enter the game allowing only 254.1 yards and 11.2 points per game.
Iowa is 10th in the Big Ten with 349.8 yards and 24.1 points per game.
Did I mention Iowa's defense would be key in keeping Iowa in the game?
The Hawkeyes will need to scrape out points in any way possible—help from the defense in that area will be much appreciated.
It's clear Iowa is fighting an uphill battle against Ohio State's offense.
James Vandenberg couldn't have picked a better coming-out game. Right?
Vandenberg has the potential , but is it asking too much of him to come out of Columbus with a victory? Vandenberg has dreamed of playing games like this for the Hawkeyes since he was a baby.
Now, he'll get his chance.
Nobody is sure what to expect from Vandenberg in his first full start. Was 9-for-27 and a terrible interception against Northwestern what the Hawkeyes can expect from a prepared Vandenberg?
Iowa had better hope not.
Rest assured, 104,000 Buckeye fans will be roaring in attempts to get in Vandenberg's head. Open targets will help calm his nerves.
The Hawkeyes would do well to find ways for Tony Moeaki, whom teams have focused on in recent contests, to get open and give Vandenberg a consistent target.
Colin Sandeman returned to practice on Tuesday and, if healthy, could provide a big play threat.
The Hawkeyes need to play it smart and safe with the play calling but can't be afraid to look downfield for receivers Marvin McNutt and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos.
Iowa's offensive line will have to improve over last week's performance and return to their early-season form. They will need to protect Vandenberg to the best of their abilities and provide big holes for running back Brandon Wegher to plunge through.
Wegher has shown all season long that, when given enough room, he can be explosive. Wegher resembles a healthy "Fast Willie" Parker of the Steelers the few times the offensive line gives him enough space to work with.
The "big uglies" up front will need to lead the way to get a ground game going against a tough Ohio State Buckeyes defense led by defensive tackle Cameron Heyward.
Heyward and the Buckeyes give up a Big Ten low of only 85.4 yards a game to the run.
Nobody said the job would be easy but it has to be done. A running game must be established and maintained to keep pressure off Vandenberg.
In the end
It's all such a tall order for the Hawkeyes but they've gotten lucky, they've received favorable calls, they've surprised...whatever—Iowa is fighting for a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl.
They've overcome too much adversity at this point.
So, why not?
This is a call to the Hawkeye faithful!
Order your "Beat Ohio State" shirts and, if you're superstitious, wear that lucky pair of boxers with a born-again faith.
Do whatever it takes.
Believe in Vandenberg! Believe in the Hawkeyes!
This could be what kills my reputation as a respectable columnist but I've taken a "damn it all" approach thus far in Iowa's season.
Enough people are already counting out the Hawkeyes in this matchup.
In a tight one "for the ages"
Iowa 17, Ohio State 16
To see Ohio State Featured Columnist Michael Periatt's take on the contest: Creature vs Creature: Ohio State's Keys to Victory
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