COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Maybe a few Ohio State fans were nervous as the Buckeyes led visiting Iowa just 16-10 early in the second quarter, but this bunch has shown all season that it’s not a matter of if it will get going, but when.
The Buckeyes turned that narrow margin into a resounding victory, sending the Hawkeyes home with clipped wings and a 54-10 shellacking.
This is what we learned from Saturday’s contest:
CJ Stroud Is Human
The guy many people proclaimed as the frontrunner for this year’s Heisman Trophy looked positively pedestrian for most of the first half. He finished the day 20-of-30 for 286 yards and four touchdowns, but early on his passes were off target and he didn’t always appear to be on the same page with his receivers. Stroud’s QBR of 60.3 was his lowest of the season.
The struggles were magnified as Ohio State was handed stellar field position on six drives, starting at its own 40 or better. In an odd way, that seemed to negatively affect Stroud.
“The first half was kind of weird,” Stroud said. “When you start out a couple times on the 30 and 40-yard line, it’s hard to get the rhythm here. We just have to execute better. It’s good to get it under our belt because the second half of the season gets very tough and you have games like that where you’re not hot early on. You have to get going and so once we got it going, I feel like we became the dynamic offense that we are.”
The old Stroud finally appeared in the third quarter, on consecutive throws of 27, 18, and 13 yards, the final one a touchdown strike to Emeka Egbuka. Stroud had perfect ball placement on all three tosses, and it was the catalyst for the Buckeyes running away and hiding against an Iowa defense that entered the game allowing just 9.8 points per contest.
The mark of a great player is the ability to put mistakes in the past and move on to the next play. Stroud did not allow the early misfires to affect the rest of his game.
“I feel like one of C.J.’s best attributes is his mental fortitude – nothing really gets to him,” Egbuka said. “I’m sure he was upset he threw the pick, he had a moment for a second but came right back like it never happened. Like you said, him being 7-7 after that [interception], just being able to bounce back like that is something personally I’ve never seen from a player. C.J. is in a league of his own in that aspect.”
The bar has been set high for Stroud, most notably by him.
“The way I would put it is that C.J. even expects more of himself,” Egbuka said. “He has super high expectations and that’s what makes him so great. He’s a perfectionist and he’s always been that way. No matter what expectations people have of him, he’s always going to hold himself to a higher standard.”
Stroud will need to have a better start next weekend against Penn State as the Nittany Lions have shown the ability to score and capitalize on opponents starting slow.
Buckeyes Saw Red In Red Zone
Ohio State entered the game as the nation’s leading red zone offense, scoring on 92 percent of its trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Of those 29 scores, 27 had been touchdowns, so it was understandable that there was disappointment when the Buckeyes netted just one touchdown and three field goals in their first-half red zone adventures.
The Buckeyes converted just three of 13 third downs, well below their average of 57.97, and had a season-low 134 first-half yards.
OSU head coach Ryan Day said many of the first-half struggles were a direct result of Iowa’s defensive scheme and execution.
“It’s an interesting game when you start off with the ball in plus territory,” he said. “When you look up at the end of the game, you’d think the score would be different, but it was a very, very good job up front to take away so many things in the middle and force you to really throw the ball. We didn’t do as good of a job of executing running the ball early on, but we knew that it was going to take time to crack it with just the way that they are. I thought we played really good football there in the second half and got a good balance going.”
Iowa does a great deal schematically to keep teams from hitting big plays, and many good offenses have struggled against the disciplined, tenacious Hawkeyes stop unit.
It wasn’t until the third-quarter flurry by Stroud that Ohio State had a play of over 20 yards. He would later find Julian Fleming for a 79-yard touchdown on a post route, showing that it’s impossible to keep a top offense down forever.
“When you play a top-10 defense, it’s not going to be fireworks every series,” Day said. “I think the story is about the defense and how well they played.”
Defense Says We’ve Got Your Back
While the offense was taking time to get going, the Buckeyes’ defense was humming almost from the outset.
Iowa scored 10 points, but only three of those came against Ohio State’s stop unit as the touchdown was a scoop and score by the defense.
Not that Iowa’s offense has been challenging by any means – it entered the game averaging 14.8 points per game, which is 128th nationally. But there are a few players, notably tight end Sam LaPorta and freshman running back Keegan Johnson. Neither really did a ton of damage as Ohio State finally had a breakout performance in both sacks and takeaways.
The Buckeyes had five sacks and five takeaways, including a defensive touchdown off an interception by linebacker Tommy Eichenberg. Tanner McCalister had a pair of interceptions and four Buckeyes had one sack apiece, including Zach Harrison. The senior finished with two tackles for loss, a pass breakup, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble, just one of many in the Buckeyes team effort.
Iowa was the fourth team this season to score 14 points or fewer against the Buckeyes, who are legitimately a top-10 defense in 2022.
“We want to give up zero points, so 10 was too many,” Eichenberg said after the game.
That’s a stark contrast to last year when Ohio State was content with simply outscoring foes. The defense has an edge, a nastiness to it, and even though Iowa may not be the best benchmark on offense, the effort of holding the Hawkeyes to 158 yards is a confidence booster.
And more importantly, it was an indicator that the unit can hold down the fort on the rare moments when the offense is struggling.