COLUMBUS, OHIO –
Stop trying to figure them out. They don’t know either.
Just know it’s not pretty and it’s never over for the Hawkeyes.
It wasn’t over Saturday until, in the closed end of Ohio State’s famed Horseshoe, with three minutes left in the game, trailing by a touchdown and with 105,044 fans giving new meaning to claustrophobia, center Eric Rothwell whizzed a shotgun snap over quarterback Nathan Chandler’s head.
Then and only then, it really was over.
Stop trying to figure out the No.9 Hawkeyes (5-2, 1-2 Big Ten).
They don’t know which of the three phases of their game is going to freak out.
No.8 Ohio State (6-1, 2-1) scored twice on Iowa’s punt team – Michael Jenkins’ 54-yard return and a blocked punt recovered in the end zone – and that was not only all the Buckeyes needed but it was darned near all they got in their 19-10 victory at Ohio Stadium.
Just when you think the Hawkeyes’ special teams are a steel-girder strength, it goes kerplooey – twice – and Iowa’s Big Ten title defense goes on life support.
“We didn’t get the job done on special teams today,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s a tough one to live with.
Iowa will have to live with the fact its defense put up world-class numbers, holding the Buckeyes to a paltry 185 yards total offense.
(Iowa most likely will have to live without defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux the rest of the season. Babineaux suffered a broken ankle in the first quarter, Ferentz said.)
OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel made a few heady plays. Wideout Drew Carter and tight end Ben Hartsock made a few key catches, but that was it. The Buckeyes gained 1.3 yards on 42 carries and lived to tell.
The Buckeyes’ best offense, in fact, was their special teams.
Or Iowa’s worst defense was its special teams, whichever way you want to look at it.
“We always say the most important play in football is the punt,” OSU Coach Jim Tressel said. “It worked twice for us today.”
Iowa strong safety Bob Sanders is the gunner, the first player down field, on punts. With a slight push in the back from OSU’s
Chris Gamble, Sanders whiffed on Jenkins, a sleek 6-foot-5, 215-pounder. Linebacker Grant Steen also slipped off, leaving Jenkins with a carwash of useless arm tackles en route to the end zone.
“We studied on Tuesday morning Iowa’s punt coverage, we felt they weren’t going to hit the ball real high,” Tressel said, “and if you could block (number) 33 (Sanders), you had a chance to bring one back.”
The Buckeyes studied right.
Ferentz cited Iowa punter David Bradley’s line drive as one of the reasons the return clicked.
“We had a couple plays we’d like to have back,” said Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding, who scored Iowa’s only touchdown, a 5-yard run off a fake field goal. “Every time you go out there, you have to execute. You can’t ever let your guard down, you can’t ever get comfortable.”
OSU’s blocked punt was shades of ’01 for Iowa, when the Hawkeyes blew games with crucial special teams mistakes.
“It’s bad enough when you give up one of those (special teams TDs), but with two you don’t give yourself a chance to
win the game,” Ferentz said.
Reserve split end Roy Hall trucked through the wide open middle of Iowa’s punt formation. Bradley didn’t even fully extend his leg. The Buckeyes obviously saw something they liked in the middle, which is the exact spot opponents attacked with great success in ’01.
Freshman strong safety Donte Whitner beat a host of Buckeyes to the ball and gave OSU a mountainous 17-3 lead with 7:54 left in the third quarter.
“We held their offense. They held our offense,” defensive end Howard Hodges said. “They made big plays on special teams. It’s tough to live with that. Just two plays made the difference in the whole game.”
The Hawkeyes will have to live with that. They’ll also have to live with an offensive line that is down to nametags.
Center Brian Ferentz, who started Iowa’s first six games, is out for the season with an MCL injury. He’ll have surgery
So, now, try to follow the bouncing 300-pounders.
Rothwell, a fifth-year senior, moved from left guard to center, a position he played until Ferentz won the job in August.
Saturday’s snaps were Rothwell’s first in a game.
And it showed.
The Hawkeyes fumbled two center-quarterback exchanges. The killer came with 12:27 in the third. Iowa’s defense stuffed OSU on the opening possession of the second half, giving Iowa the ball at OSU’s 28, its best field position to that point.
After an 11-yard completion to wideout Ed Hinkel on first down, quarterback Nathan Chandler and Rothwell shortcircuited.
“I’ve got to say this about Eric Rothwell,” Chandler said. “He’s a real warrior. That’s not an easy thing to do, not in this stadium or any stadium. He hadn’t played center since August and he jumped in and tried to help the team the best he could.”
With Rothwell moving over, true freshman Mike Jones made his first start at left guard.
“We’re going to get it together on offense,” left tackle Robert Gallery said. “There are five games left. That’s a lot of football, and that’s how we’re looking at it.”
Six of Iowa’s 14 drives went more than three plays. The Hawkeyes finished with 219 yards total offense. The Buckeyes forced running back Fred Russell to run laterally way too much. Russell gained 77 yards but lost 35 to net 42 on 22 carries.
Iowa finished with 66 yards on 40 carries, a 1.6 average.
“Any game is tough when the running game isn’t working,” Chandler said. “We have seen that throughout the season. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to come around.”
Any given Saturday, Iowa will have to live with Iowa. And what Iowa can and can’t do.
The hard part is figuring it out.