On Saturday, the Big Ten will host its de facto championship game when No. 15 Iowa visits No. 10 Ohio State. On the line: at least a share of the league title and its automatic BCS berth. "We all know what's at stake," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Yeah, we do. That's the simple part. Less simple: how we got here.
Before last weekend, the Iowa talk centered on whether the Hawkeyes could go undefeated and still get shut out of the national title game. Now, after falling to Northwestern and losing quarterback Ricky Stanzi to an ankle injury, nothing's certain. Win in Columbus, and they'll be Big Ten champs. Lose, and they're likely headed for a second-tier bowl.
The Buckeyes suffered a shocking upset of their own (to Purdue), but have found new life thanks to last Saturday's win over Penn State. The loss to the Boilermakers left many wondering if much-ballyhooed prospect Terrelle Pryor was approaching bust status, but now, with a fifth straight conference crown in sight, Ohio State's signal caller says the defeat was "maybe the best thing that happened to us."
1. Pryor and the Ohio State line have hit their stride. The Purdue loss included the two things that have most haunted Pryor and his offensive line: poor decision making and an inability to control the line of scrimmage. Since that game, though, both Pryor and the line have silenced their critics.
Against Penn State, Pryor remained poised and in control and avoided turnovers. Despite playing on a bum ankle, he delivered the defining performance of his career. He had help from a line that's been surprising consistent of late. In the last three weeks, the unit has paved the way for 269.3 rushing yards on average; in the last two, it's protected the conference's most sacked quarterback.
That growth will be tested against an Iowa defense that boasts an athletic front and leads the Big Ten in takeaways (26).
2. Iowa's defense gives it the best chance to win. Iowa marched to a 9-0 start in spite of, and because of, Stanzi. The Hawkeyes' 14th-ranked defense overcame Stanzi's 13 interceptions to keep Iowa in games. But even after turnover-laden performances, Stanzi could lead comeback drives. Now, with freshman James Vandenberg taking over, the defense will face even more pressure.
After a full week of preparation, it's unlikely Vandenberg will replicate the 9-of-27, 82-yard performance he delivered after being thrust into the fire against Northwestern. But as Ferentz said: "You couldn't ask for a tougher starting contest for him." Vandenberg will face the nation's fourth-stingiest defense, which has given up 11.2 points per game and which last weekend teed off on a far more veteran quarterback in Penn State's Daryll Clark.
With the inexperienced Vandenberg under center, expect Ferentz to go with an even more conservative gameplan than usual. Still, the formula will largely remain the same: attempt to establish the run, minimize the potential for mistakes and put the team's best of chance of winning -- its defense -- in good spots.
3. Iowa's getting no respect. The Hawkeyes fell out of favor after losing to Northwestern and losing Stanzi, both with the pollsters -- who dropped them from eighth to 13th in the AP and sixth to 13th in the coaches' poll -- and in Vegas. Iowa opened as a 15-point underdog to Ohio State, and that number has swelled to 17 at some sportsbooks.
Caesars bookie Mark Tutino, who boasts 20-plus years in the business, said he can't remember a top 10 team giving up two-plus touchdowns -- and said most bettors believe Ohio State will cover. But as one Big Ten defensive coordinator told me, "Iowa's got a great defense. They're rough, physical. There's no way they'll lose by 17."
The Hawkeyes do have a track record of flopping against the Buckeyes, who have won nine of the teams' last 10 meetings, including the last five in the Horseshoe. Though it's still hard to imagine a team that a week ago stood undefeated earning so little love, Ferentz seems to be reveling in it.
"We've got them right where we want them, that's the way I'm looking at it," he said. "So it's perfect."
The Buckeyes have made strides of late, but how do opponents prepare for them? I spoke to a coach who faced Ohio State this season. Here's what he had to say:
"They're always going to be solid and they work not to beat themselves, but they're not as explosive, outside of the quarterback position, as they've been. They've got good receivers and good running backs but they don't have outstanding receivers and outstanding running backs. Their line is solid; it's not the best in the Big Ten. It's a good line but I don't think it's a dominant line.
"When Pryor is on and taking care of the football they can score points and play with anybody. But they're still built the way they've always been built, which is [for] ball-control, and I don't think they're going to put up huge numbers on really good defenses. Not that they're not good and sound, they're just a little unpredictable because you don't know how Pryor is going to go.
"You just have to gear your defense around stopping the running game and stopping [Pryor]. I think the people who have success, they play the receivers man-to-man and they commit more people to the box, even in passing situations, even on third down you try to keep him bottled up. If you do that and you don't let him out and don't give him early big plays down the field he's likely to get frustrated and maybe make some mistakes."
Each week I'll feature the best prediction/trash talk on the week's featured matchup. Follow me to make your entry and check out the pairing for next week's Game of the Week.
Iowa over Ohio State by a touchdown because they tell the Buckeyes they are now in the SEC and it's January.-- @SportsCentaur
Ohio State 24, Iowa 14. Stanzi's out, but that's not the deciding factor. Sure, he generated some late-game magic, but Iowa will field an erratic offense no matter who stands under center. This game will come down to Pryor. If he struggles or turns the ball over against a defense that's made its living forcing mistakes, he'll need to shrug it off and avoid a snowball effect. With the progress he's shown of late, that's a reasonable expectation.