Passing A Character Test

Sometimes things just don’t go your way on the football field.  Your normally sure-handed receivers drop catchable balls that could break the game open.  You rack up penalties and the other team doesn’t.  An off-target pass gets batted into the air and intercepted rather than falling to the ground.  You’re playing in enemy territory, on the opponent’s Senior Night, before a bunch of screaming fans, against a determined opponent that is hoping to salvage a disappointing season with a win.

When you are faced with such adversity, a football game can become a test of character.  Many teams fold under the pressure and experience the bitterness of defeat.  Good teams find a way to dig deep, overcome such obstacles, and win.

So it was with Ohio State last night.  The Buckeyes entered the fourth quarter tied with Iowa after some tough, hard-nosed football and lots of missed opportunities.  After an errant Terrelle Pryor pass caromed into the hands of a Hawkeye defender, Iowa got a quick score to lead 17-10, with only 12:10 to go in the game.  The Hawkeyes and their home town fans were fired up, and the Buckeyes had their backs to the wall.

Yet Ohio State found a way to answer.  It took the ensuing kickoff, marched down the field, and Devin Barclay kicked a 48-yard field goal to pull the Buckeyes within four.  Then the defense came up big, forcing a three-and-out by the Hawkeyes.  Ohio State got the ball back on their own 24 and again moved the ball downfield with a mix of runs and passes.  On third-and-ten at the 50, Terrelle Pryor threw a perfect strike to a wide-open DeVier Posey in the end zone — and Posey inexplicably dropped it.  Many teams would have given up at that point, but not the Buckeyes.  Pryor made a great, game-saving run on fourth-and-ten, and Ohio State was back in business.  A short pass, a run for first down, and a great Dane Sanzenbacher catch later, the Buckeyes were two yards away from the promised land.  Two gritty runs by Boom Herron got the TD, the Buckeyes’ defense stuffed Iowa again, and the Buckeyes ran out the clock for a crucial road win.

Many Ohio State fans think the team should win every game by 30 points — but that’s just not the way big-time college football works.  Iowa clearly is one of the best teams in the conference, and when you play at Kinnick Stadium you can’t expect a blowout — you just play for a victory.  Ohio State got that victory, and the Buckeyes now stand at 10-1 overall and 6-1 and tied for the lead with Wisconsin and Michigan State in the Big Ten with one game to go.  That sounds pretty good to me.

The Sweet Scent Of Roses

The Buckeyes pulled off a nerve-wracking overtime win over Iowa yesterday to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl.  For those of us in the stands, it was a roller coaster ride of delight and deep concern as Ohio State made big plays and then Iowa answered.  You could argue that the biggest play of the game from Ohio State’s standpoint was winning the coin flip in overtime, so the Buckeye defense could set the tone for the overtime — and they did.

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The post-game celebration

It was a perfect day for a football game; warm when the sun was higher in the sky, then cooling off after it dipped below the western side of Ohio Stadium.  The teams were evenly matched, but with different offensive styles.  Iowa decided they were going to play a more wide-open game and they did so, effectively.  Cornerback Chimdi Chekwa probably had his worst day as a Buckeye.  Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg went after him repeatedly, with great success.  The Buckeyes, on the other hand, for the most part eschewed the pass in favor of an effective ground game that saw them break two long touchdown runs, a third, shorter burst around end for a score, and rack up more than 200 yards on the ground.  And when it looked like Ohio State had put Iowa away, Iowa answered with game-changing plays like a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 70-yard drive for the tying score.

In the end, though, it was the Ohio State defense that made four big plays in overtime — forcing a hurried incompletion by Vandenberg, a tackle for loss on a running play, a huge, crushing sack of Vandenberg, and then an interception in the end zone that turned Iowa away without any points.  That performance allowed the Ohio State offense to play conservatively on its possession.  Three running plays later, the ball was positioned squarely in front of the goalposts, Ohio State’s backup kicked booted it through, the Rose Bowl bid was assured, and excited fans flooded the field.

Some other thoughts about the game:

*  Iowa quarterback James Vandenberg looks like he has a real future in the Big Ten.  He has a good arm, the Iowa coaches had a good game plan, and when the Iowa line gave him time — which was most of the time — he threw accurately and well.

*  I think Terrelle Pryor is more banged up than the coaches have let on.  The Ohio State offensive game plan clearly focused on running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, and they both played well.  Pryor did not look to be nearly as maneuverable when he went back to pass.

*  Ohio State’s two-minute drill needs a lot of work.

*  If you can keep the Ohio State defensive front from getting penetration — and that is a big “if” for most teams — you can throw the ball on the Buckeyes.

*  For all of the complaints about Ohio State’s conservative style, it has produced the team’s fifth straight Big Ten championship.

Now it’s on to the traditional rivalry game with the Michigan Wolverines, at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Playing For A Chance At The Roses

Tomorrow afternoon Ohio State plays Iowa at Ohio Stadium, with the winner of the game taking home the Big Ten championship and the invitation to the Rose Bowl. It’s been a tremendous season for Iowa. Until last week’s stumble against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes were undefeated and had pulled off a series of thrilling come-from-behind wins, including a last-second victory against Michigan State. The Buckeyes’ season has been a bit more up-and-down, with last week’s road win against Penn State being the high point so far.

I expect it to be a tough, hard-hitting game. Iowa’s offense is banged up and, at times during conference play, has struggled at moving the ball. Due to an injury they will be starting a new quarterback, so when Iowa has the ball Ohio State fans will look to make the Horseshoe as loud and intimidating as possible. Iowa’s defense, on the other hand, is one of the finest defenses in the Big Ten and in the nation. They are a gritty, ball-hawking group that thrives on turnovers and big plays. Iowa also has excellent special teams that have kicked and covered well and blocked field goal and punt attempts.

I’m worried about this game. Although Ohio State’s offense played extremely well against Penn State last week, they have been inconsistent this year and Iowa’s defense may well be the best defense they have faced to date. The Buckeyes’ running backs (especially Boom Herron) have been battling injuries, and Terrelle Pryor also has not been 100 percent since suffering an injury in the New Mexico State game. The two keys for the Buckeyes, I think, will be the play of the offensive line and avoiding turnovers against the aggressive Iowa squad. The offense needs to be able to move the ball on the ground with its running backs and keep the Iowa defense off balance with short passes and imaginative play calling. Avoiding turnovers will be huge, because the Buckeyes do not want to give Iowa a momentum-changing defensive score or a short field. Ohio State will want to keep Iowa bottled up and make the Hawkeyes and their redshirt freshman quarterback put together long sustained drives if they hope to score.

I expect Iowa to pass much more than Penn State did last week; they have nothing to lose by running a more wide-open offense. The keys for the Ohio State defense will be pressure from the line and solid play for the defensive backfield, with an emphasis on not giving up any big plays. The Ohio State defensive line has been terrific at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, disrupting plays in the backfield, and clamping down on opponents’ ground attacks, and my hope is that they can accomplish those goals tomorrow as well. A few turnovers from a harried Iowa offense would be most welcome!

UJ and I will be there for the game, with sister Cathy and niece Brittany. We’ll get down to the Stadium area early to take in the pre-game festivities on what is supposed to be a sunny, 65-degree afternoon and then root hard for the Buckeyes to prevail in their bid for the Rose Bowl.