COLUMBUS, Ohio — This week is an easy read for Iowa and Northwestern. It’s survival for the winner and elimination for the loser.
You can question how realistic a Legends Division title would be for either team. The Hawkeyes punched in and gave No. 3 Ohio State a four-quarter match before falling 34-24 last weekend. Iowa is now 1-2 in the Big Ten (4-3 overall) and plays host Saturday to Northwestern (4-3, 0-3), a team that has lost three straight after falling 20-17 to Minnesota at Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill.
It is a fact that there are five games left. These teams trail Michigan State (3-0 Big Ten) and Nebraska (2-0), but five games nudges open the door ever so slightly. It slams shut for Saturday’s loser.
“That’s probably true,” Iowa linebacker James Morris said. “I’m still probably more on Ohio State right now, so I apologize if I can’t answer that question really great.”
The Hawkeyes poured a lot out on this one. They were tied with a team they’ve beaten once in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 15 seasons and in a place where they haven’t won since 1991. Iowa chased a lot of “haven’t wons” around the Ohio Stadium turf in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t catch them.
“They took control in the second half,” Ferentz said. “We couldn’t get a stop when we needed to, basically.”
Iowa’s offense lost its balance in the second half. It rushed for 101 yards on 21 carries in the first, when the Hawkeyes held a 17-10 halftime lead, and then it was held to 29 yards on six rushes. This threw undue weight toward quarterback Jake Rudock and the passing game. It did what it could.
“This is one of the tougher environments in football,” Ferentz said. “We put a lot on our quarterback. I thought he did a good job. He was very poised out there. He did a lot of good things. I think he continue to grows each week and that’s exciting to us.”
In a game with no three-and-outs, it almost felt like punts were turnovers. Iowa had three and OSU had no punts. Kind of impossible for an offense to fight against that, but Rudock pointed to finishing as the next stage for the Hawkeyes.
What goes into finishing?
“Not taking no for an answer,” said Rudock, who finished 19 of 34 for 245 yards, three TDs and an interception. “Just having that attitude that we’re going to drive the ball, we’re going to get points, we’re going to score a touchdown. It’s as much mental as it is physical.”
The offense did what it could. The defense caved.
Ohio State rushed 51 times for 273 yards, the most against the Hawkeyes since, coincidentally, Northwestern went for 349 last season. Quarterback Braxton Miller was tuned in, completing 22 of 27 for 222 yards with two TDs. Ohio State rolled up 495 total yards and just grounded Iowa to a nub in the second half.
“Play better,” Ferentz said when asked what the next move was for the defense. “Play better, that’s all. Just play better, a little smarter.”
Ferentz was annoyed by Miller’s 9-yard zig-zag from one side of the field to the other to convert a third-and-7 that eventually led to a field goal and a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. He also wasn’t too keen on a 58-yard Miller-to-Corey Brown TD pass that tied the game at 10-10 in the second quarter.
If Iowa were going to survive at Ohio Stadium, the defense was going to have to limit big plays.
“It’s hard to play good defense when you give up the big play,” Ferentz said. “We got victimized on the one, to their credit.”
The play was almost exactly like the 46-yard TD pass Michigan State pulled off at Kinnick on Oct. 5. Miller faked a read-option run, pulled it out of running back Carlos Hyde’s midsection and stepped back to hit Brown. No one was back for Iowa. The fake vacuumed up defensive backs like they were crumbs.
“They saw us coming down and biting and it was just one play where we had a misread and they took advantage of it,” free safety Tanner Miller said. “We had guys biting on the run and we came down and that left a guy open.”
This is where Northwestern left the Iowa defense in 2012. Quarterback Kain Colter and running back Venric Mark combined for 328 rushing yards and three TDs. They sat out against Minnesota with ankle injuries. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes they can return against the Hawkeyes. Mark was ruled out before Saturday’s game; Colter was available as an “emergency QB” and wasn’t fully cleared by doctors.
“Yeah, I’m optimistic. We’d love to have him,’’ Fitzgerald said of Colter. “Both of those guys are day-to-day, so we’ll see.’’
The Wildcats will need them if they want to survive.