(Note: It should be said that the Zach Walters Appreciation Guild commissioned this work largely due to Patrick Mayhorn’s discussion and encouragement. It’s his fault, basically, that you’re about to read 7000 words on Iowa, and you should be mad at him for prompting the first full-length Guild dispatch in 5 years. Thanks to the EHC Team as well for letting the Guild publish all this. They were kinder in those 5 years than they ever needed to be).
On American Collegiate Football website, Land Grant Holy Land, one of the website’s podcasts went through their Top 20 most rewatchable games in recent Ohio State history. Tastes are subjective, and while there are certain objective measures of the importance of the game – team rankings, margin of victory – a fondness for Ohio State football doesn’t stem from objective metrics. Ohio State football is a fondness that people have for the sport before it occurs to them why they’re fond of it.
Many of the games on the list will occupy some of the warmest, most wholesome places in the fandom’s heart. Cardale’s arc from ‘guy who made a silly tweet’ to one of the decade’s most deeply beloved Buckeyes is deeply wholesome. Many of the other games on Patrick and Colton’s list exist warmly on life’s coffee table, where you can open it up and show to all the guests in your life to explain serenely why you are an Ohio State fans, or if they are part of the extended Ohio State family, you can look back and reminisce on golden days of the program.
The 2017 game at Iowa is not on that coffee table. This particular VHS tape is cordoned well out of the children’s reach, in the locked box on the shelf reserved for the epicurean delights one does not speak of in public. The shelf is dusty, and part of us would prefer to keep it so, because cleaning it would remind us of what’s up there, of what we once were.
But the kids are asleep. The dusty VCR beckons.
ACT I: BASEBALL PREGAME IN AMERICA
Reflect now upon the following Twitter psalm by Justin Klugh:
This tweet describes the Iowa game in its kaleidoscopic mysteries. The first reading of this psalm suggests that Joe Buck does not like baseball – that after 47 innings of baseball, Joe Buck interprets the expansion of the sun as the death of all human life on Earth, and that he eagerly embraces this death if it means that the baseball game ends. This first interpretation describes how almost every Ohio State fan watched the Iowa game – begging for the end for its own sake, in the face of an ballpark organist determined to match the dread of seven angels alone.
A second interpretation, however, describes how The Cultured Ohio State Fan watched the Iowa game. This interpretation suggests that the sun’s expansion shouldn’t be read as anything more than it is – the sun is just getting bigger, after all. And because it’s getting bigger, it’s getting brighter from Earth; because it’s getting brighter, more light is reflected off the baseball game into our yearning eyeballs. Joe Buck is not begging for the end, he is ecstatic because he gets to see the game more brightly and vividly here in the 47th inning than he has ever seen baseball before. The organist is communicating deeply through their crooning stadium pipe organ, and the audience understands this organist better than they understand their own families. Joe Buck doesn’t dislike 47 consecutive innings of baseball – he loves this hedonistic marathon more than he loves life itself.
If the sun would have continued to grow over the course of the Iowa game, allowing us to see it even more vividly, the cultured Ohio State fan would be overjoyed. Because what occurred in Kinnick Stadium on November 4th, 2017 was a football game that ended with a score of 55-24. Iowa was the home team in this game. The team that scored 55 points was not the visiting team. Iowa scored 55 points in an American football game against 6th-ranked Ohio State in 2017, is what I’m saying.
Stare unblinkingly into the sun, growing larger with each moment. Know that none of your ancestors’ retinae have ever beheld anything this bright. Be ecstatic in the ashing vividness of the Iowa game.
ACT II: BASEBALL KEYS TO THE GAME IN AMERICA
The Iowa game did come out of nowhere. There are several concrete failings that one can pinpoint as the cause of Ohio State’s defeat, but the Iowa game fell directly aftermath of an exhilarating victory over Penn State, one authored by exceptional play from J.T. Barrett and the defense.
In the most literal sense, on the scale of a season, J.T. Barrett was an inconsistent passer. This is meant literally and without judgment – the variance in his performance between games was enormous. Good and bad passers alike can be consistent in their performance, experiencing little variation between games, and J.T. Barrett was not that. He played in an Ohio State air raid offense that allowed for apparent consistency in statistics, but consistent he was not. Against a 2017 Oklahoma defense which had eleven players and was charged with stopping teams from scoring, which surrendered 7.5 yards per pass attempt in 2017, and about which a graceful person would speak no more, Barrett averaged 5.2 yards per attempt.
And then in Ohio Stadium on October 29th, 2017, J.T. Barrett was for 60 minutes awesomely close to perfect. As wide-open and air-raid inspired as Ohio State’s offense was, Barrett’s game was the most brilliant game an Ohio State QB had played to date. As of the end of the Penn State game, Barrett had thrown 25 TDs on the season to one interception. Those are not ‘video game numbers’ – find me someone with those numbers in a video game and I’ll find you someone who needs to play on a harder difficulty. Barrett was, for six days, the Heisman frontrunner with distance.
Barrett’s passing statistics were stellar, but as the broadcast team mentioned prior to the Iowa game kickoff, the Ohio State defense had been “out of control.” There are jokes to be had about the choice of words, but the defensive line was the single most outstanding unit out of several outstanding defensive units. And the 2017 Ohio State defense was, without reservation, incredible.
Sam Darnold is a very good QB, and the USC offense was held to 7 points. Baker Mayfield was one of the best passers in College Football History, and 2017 Oklahoma scored fewer than 40 points in exactly 2 games – Ohio State was one of them. The actual scoring margin does understate how well Oklahoma performed, and even if large, rumbling passcatcher Dimitri Flowers would make the linebackers look foolish, that was a problem Ohio State would not see for precisely 6 games, keeping Mike Gesicki largely in check during the Penn State game. Saquon Barkley was held to 2.1 yards per rush in the Penn State game. Five of the defensive linemen on the 2017 team have been drafted, with at least one more en route. Ohio State would end 2017 7th in defensive S&P+, and that ranking includes what would happen at Kinnick.
One can look back and say the Iowa game presaged the struggles of the 2018 defense, but ‘looking back’ is all one would be doing. The Ohio State defense was one of the very best in 2017 entering the Iowa game, and even including the Iowa game, it remained one of the best at season’s end. The 2017 defense was astounding, and it was excellent even if it imploded once. It’s important to declare the state of the program as soberly as possible entering the Iowa game, because sobriety has no part in what happened next.
ACT III: BASEBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA
There are some games one can just feel would be weird from the outset. Depending on how strictly one defines ‘outset,’ this might have been one of them. The first play was a pick six – and a trigger-happy OSU fan could call this the turning point. It was not. After 8 seconds, Iowa was on pace for a 3,150-0 win. After 2:10, the game was tied. After 26:47, the game was tied. You could say that you could feel this one was weird from the outset, and you’d have been wrong. For 27 minutes, Ohio State-Iowa was a regular game at Kinnick, properly within the distribution of ‘weird’ that one comes to expect from Kirk Ferentz’s dread palace.
The first play of the game was a J.T. Barrett interception. The pick was bad, but not as bad as it initially looked.
Amani Hooker was – whether by accident or lightning genius – physically blocked from Barrett’s line of sight for most of the play. He was moving directly behind Jewell as the play started, directly behind Jordan while Barrett was in the pocket, and only entered Barrett’s field of vision after Barrett had already shifted in the pocket and fixed his eyes on McLaurin. That Barrett didn’t see Hooker around Jordan after he rolled out was his mistake, but the reason why he didn’t see Hooker is obvious enough – Barrett could not see him until after he shifted.
That first interception is the bleak, chaotic magic of Kinnick in one play. The rules of engagement are this: go to Iowa City in November and expect dreadful circumstances, a distinct but out-of-proportion misplay, and offenses looking foolish. Those are Iowa’s terms, and by setting foot in Iowa City, you agree to them. This pick six is classic, stock Kinnick stupid; it is not Eldritch stupid.
The aftermath of this one extremely Kinnick play was 26 minutes of normal football, if football that highlighted Ohio State’s weaknesses. J.T. Barrett was legitimately excellent the week prior, and he did not roll over. Over the next three drives, Barrett would run for three first downs and throw three chunk passes.
These wideouts were spectacularly open, and Barrett didn’t miss. Iowa’s defensive backs were not concerned with getting beat over the top. This resulted in them getting beat over the top when Barrett could hit his receivers. Hang on to that.
Barrett making good throws and some bad ones. Very well, he was the player he usually was, for better and worse. There was an odd pick, but it was a perfectly J.T. Barrett game for 26 minutes.
Ohio State’s defense would surrender yardage in chunk plays to Iowa, and that was very much not the norm. Some of those mistakes were genuine flukes.
Jalyn Holmes got blown up by Iowa’s Alaric Jackson. Sometimes an Iowa OL will push you back 5 yards and block a linebacker using a lineman. Bosa the Elder used a running back to make a sack once. It’s embarrassing, but not a profound personnel or schematic defeat. In 2018, Alaric Jackson was a 2nd team All-Big Ten Tackle as a sophomore. Getting blown up by a very good Iowa linemen happens, and it looks silly and probably feels humiliating in the moment, but it would have only foreboded Ohio State’s collapse if you thought Jalyn Holmes would be repeatedly destroyed at the Line of Scrimmage. That would not have been a wise conclusion. Ohio State held Iowa to a field goal on this drive. Stasis held.
Other problems were recurring. Ohio State had some critical flaws defending TEs. In fairness – Ohio State faced more than its fair share of excellent TEs in the 2017 season. Mike Gesicki and Mark Andrews were excellent TEs; Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson were the only pair of TEammates ever drafted in the first round. Ohio State got torched because they had fundamental errors, yes, but also because the TEs they played were disproportionately excellent.
But about those errors.
- I relate very much to the defensive coordinators calling this game. All the defenders are in a perfect triangle around T.J. Hockenson here. Perfect shapes, perfect symmetry, and deeply gratifying to lovers of geometry. 22 yard gain.
- The following should have been a touchdown if the pass were good. The pass was behind Hockenson and not good.
“Ah, Ohio State got lucky on this play to not get a TD scored!” If Stanley had thrown a better pass, that would have been a touchdown, but – to be perfectly clear – the fact that Stanley’s pass was off-target was not lucky for Ohio State. If that play had been a touchdown, the drive would have ended. If the drive ended, there would been no more Iowa plays. And if there had been no more Iowa plays, Nick Bosa would not have done a very silly thing.
ACT IV: BASEBALL BOSA-LESS NIGHT IN AMERICA
SLEEP NOW IN THE FIRE
Metal as hell, yes, but targeting all the same. The resulting before-and-after was as clean a win probability cliff as one will find in a first half:
At the start of the game, per ESPN FPI, Ohio State had an 89.7% chance of victory, and had a 73.5% chance of victory even after the second Hockenson reception on this drive. The various projection systems don’t always agree one-to-one – the John Calvin Composite Index, for instance, had Ohio State at a 0% chance of victory at the start of the game – but Ohio State would still be projected to win three of every four games of similar circumstances. That’s a worryingly large loss probability in Kinnick, but this game’s win probability would not stay ‘worrying’ for long.
|Before Targeting||After Targeting|
|Number of Bosas||1||0|
|OSU Interceptions Thrown||1||3|
Bosa did not cause the offense to throw interceptions. Bosa did not cause the entire defensive collapse, as the foundations for getting shredded by Iowa’s excellent TEs were there before. The wonderful thing about our world is that there can be many causes for things. And it is equally marvelous that, if there are many causes for things, that pluralism does not reduce the importance of a single cause – after Bosa’s ejections, the avalanche begins immediately and moves quickly.
Next play: TD to Noah Fant.
Ohio State gets the ball back on the kickoff.
First down on a defensive hold.
J.T. Barrett throws a pass at double coverage that gets intercepted.
Wadley Screen. Fairly open, bad tackling. 24 Yards.
TD next play.
Exhale. When you next inhale, Ohio State will be down 31-17.
ACT V: BASEBALL HALFTIME IN AMERICA
What just happened in 3.25 minutes was that Ohio State’s best front seven player got ejected, Noah Fant and Nate Stanley made an incredible play – an excellent pass to an NFL first-rounder getting separation – J.T. Barrett made a bad throw, Ohio State couldn’t defend on the perimeter, and Iowa scored again. This brings us to halftime.
Three minutes and 13 seconds, and Ohio State flipped from 75% to 25% win probability. In fairness:
Expectation and hindsight tint the halftime score very differently. In the moment, it wouldn’t have occurred to an onlooker that Ohio State was in an unwinnable position. At halftime the prior week, they were in an equally precarious position. After halftime the prior week, they were in a far more precarious position. Even so, Ohio State came back due to the best single quarter of football in the school’s history.
But: Ohio State had Bosa against Penn State, and Ohio State was killing Penn State in every statistic that predicts the score apart from the score itself. Not so with Iowa.
ACT VI: BASEBALL SECOND HALF IN AMERICA
This did not change
Ohio State’s back for the 2nd half, after a deeply out-of-character first half. 2nd half begins, Iowa receives, and the Ohio State defense forced a 3-and-out. Ohio State’s 2017 defense was tyrannical when not defending TEs or FBs in the passing game. The Bosa punt indicated the last point the game was even; this was the last single drive Ohio State actually won while the game was within reach. Even then, the Bacchanalia didn’t begin quite yet.
Ohio State receives punt. Dobbins runs. Barrett Keeper. Indecisive pass deflected. Punt from your 49 with 3 yards left.
Down only 14 in the 3rd quarter while being lavishly more talented than your opponent, it’s understandable to not want to go for it. The punt worked out well! It put Iowa at their own 10 yard line. Drue Chrisman is a fine punter, and it worked out well.
But a punt on 4th and 3 from the 49, in a game that Barrett made one fully irresponsible throw, threw a freakish pick six, and was inaccurate on most passes that weren’t wide open downfield receivers, in a game where Bosa was ejected, in a game where the defense would have struggled to stop 15 yard TE chunk passes even with Bosa, in relief of a series of Ohio State losses that underutilized running backs – in the face of all of this, doing whatever is possible to keep the game close seems vital. But when in Iowa, punt as the Iowans do.
Iowa’s response: a regular drive, featuring three TE receptions. There were subtle schematic flaws in the defense that would recur – LBs unsuccessfully chasing slant routes from behind, for instance. But this was a bubbling, low-level worry – and worry means the outcome is unknown.
What if I told you Ohio State LBs would struggle in Schiano’s scheme
Very well, the ‘hit it out of his hands’ plan does not account for Iowa receivers
A few more plays commenced, and Ohio State held Iowa to a fourth down. Iowa’s offense takes the field. The Bosa ejection separates the close game from the blowout, and separates the even game from the portion when Ohio State was outplayed and outcoached, but every Iowa drive thereafter was progressively more surreal. There was no turning point here where it officially became a joke – the ballpark organ playing carnival music in the background just grew progressively louder moment by moment, but this is where the author first heard the wild organist. The 32nd inning beckons.
ACT VII: CARNIVAL NIGHT IN AMERICA
Kirk Ferentz paraded a carnival around Iowa City. Iowa may average 9.2 points per game when playing football, but the Ferentz family can open the private collection for farce. The carnival was educational, showcasing every seam Ohio State’s team had, even ones that had not been hinted at before; the carnival was cruel, shattering a season of expectations; the carnival was a marvel, showing an implosion that Urban Meyer teams never saw before. Or: once saw before.
The carnival involved out-of-place punting. Fake punts rely on the element of surprise to open running lanes for someone not accustomed to running lanes. The fake punt does not rely on coverage mismatches or play design, it uses sleight-of-hand in the hope of no coverage. The better option is usually to line up the offense and rely on creating schematic or personnel advantages, rather than a dice roll that the defense simply forgot about the second-most probable outcome from the punting formation. It can backfire spectacularly – with a very high likelihood of taking the ball a long distance the other direction – with an upside commensurate with the running speed of your punter, i.e.: probably very good relative to the general population and very bad relative to the population of FBS football players.
Take the downside of that dice roll, and in lieu of ‘an unexpected first down’ or ‘points,’ take ‘possibly-good field position.’ That’s what a pooch punt is. Pooch punts are bad plays. Quarterbacks are not punters. They do not have the precision of a specialist, are very likely to shank it, and if they are practicing pooch punting, they could be spending that time better doing very nearly anything else. There is a perfectly fine article in the most recent American Journal of Sports Medicine, Nate Stanley. Reading that would be a far better use of time than practicing pooch punting, you surely realize.
And it’s precisely because the pooch punt is a terrible play that Kirk Ferentz calling it is makes it a central part of the carnival. Tactically, it is disastrous, resulted in a net gain of 27 yards, and was very nearly blocked by a solo bullrushing Bob Landers; aesthetically, however, it returns you to a time when punting was one of the QB’s primary responsibilities, in addition to playing the defensive line and starring in silent films.
Kirk Ferentz, really, is the romantic youth of Scott Joplin re-appearing for a moment
1980s Miami took on-field penalties to articulate disrespect in their language – loud, boisterous displays of masculinity, the assertion of dominance, even if it meant putting themselves at a material disadvantage on the field. Similarly, Kirk Ferentz articulates his disrespect in his native tongue: punting. Kirk Ferentz calling suboptimal punting means that Kirk Ferentz believes you a lesser man. Kirk Ferentz, it seems, does not think highly of Urban Meyer.
Ohio State’s offense gets the ball back on the 20, gets called for a hold, calls a Barrett keeper, throws to the perimeter, Barrett scrambles on a pass, and Ohio State punts. Kirk Ferentz has cowed Ohio State fully with his display of punting dominance.
Denzel Ward – about whom you’ve heard nothing of thus far, because he was an excellent cornerback – had excellent coverage on a pass breakup to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Then the witching started anew, dumber and more magical than before.
It started when T.J. Hockenson ran a route.
What if I told you Schiano-coached LBs would struggle defending TJ Hockenson, specifically
An Ohio State linebacker got properly beaten on a route, and Hockenson was a mage. Beyond the receivers, the NFL has a type, and Nate Stanley – apart from being that type – was making some legitimately excellent throws. Arnette was the covering CB, and Easley got separation on him, but Arnette would have needed to have been perfect to guard Stanley’s throw.
When did he find the time to practice punting
Flipside: Ohio State’s defense was a menace in 2017. Maryland averaged one (1) point one (1) yard(s) per play (1.1 ypp). Down to their fourth-string QB, perhaps, but 66 total yards of offense on 55 plays against a Power 5 team who isn’t Rutgers or Kansas is a cruelty that doesn’t have any readily-available analogies. This same defense made Akrum Wadley look like Rondale Moore. How did Rondale Moore get famous again?
And then, on the next play, Tyquan Lewis sacks Stanley. The defense was spectacular one moment, and exploded the next. Watching this game made it impossible to calibrate expectations. Wadley makes a deeply worrying run, breaking tackles, Dante Booker creates havoc enough for Lewis to sack Stanley, a crossing route that the linebackers did not stop puts Iowa in a reasonable 3rd and 4, Arnette breaks up a pass to force fourth down, and Kirk Ferentz sends his field goal unit onto the field.
Field Goal Unit.
Field goal unit?
Kirk Ferentz put a FG unit onto the field. Several undisclosed moments later, Iowa reveals a formation that has been described as “allowed”, sent its kicker to the far side of the field, put a man in motion, had him run 50 yards parallel to the line of scrimmage, had their kicker run a fade, and then the holder threw the ball to the long-snapper. These events all occurred within 30 seconds of each other.
Next play: Sam Hubbard is properly an NFL-caliber player. It’s important to remember this, a fact that will remain true regardless of what you see below.
Barrett Keeper. Pass Batted at Line of Scrimmage. Get the stars back on stage. Iowa’s offense takes the field.
First down: Ohio State holds Iowa to a 4-yard rush. That’s a win for the defense. Second down: a play also occurred.
Timeo currentes et atra aureaque gerentes
Pictured above is the longest play Ohio State allowed in 2017 outside of garbage time. Ohio State allowed five rushes of more than 30 yards during the 2017 season while the game was within reach. Two came against a triple option team and a #2 draft pick. The other three of them came in this game. None outside of Kinnick were as a result of a defense simply running themselves out of position and unable to compensate. A TE scores in the aftermath.
“This is what they were afraid of,” Brian Griese states on the subsequent kickoff, mostly incorrectly.
One of baseball’s selling points is that, if you come to the ballpark, you might see something that’s never happened before. You could see Lonnie Chisenhall have a towering night in summer, where he hits 4 HRs and 9 RBIs; you could see anonymous utility players hit for the cycle or a Triple-A call-up throw a no-hitter. It matters only a little bit whether that player happens to be on your team, so when the last striving ember of Penn State hope was extinguished – when James Butler broke a 53-yard gain, specifically – the baseball-loving soul of the author realized that we had just seen something marvelous and historic and started pulling for Iowa to score 50.
Ohio State receives the kickoff in the bottom of the 45th. Overthrow.
Pick, thrown late and near Josh Jackson.
“It’s Josh Jackson Time” -Josh Jackson
Kirk Ferentz, to spite me, decides to run the ball three times and then kicks it. Oh, sure, he could get to 50 if he wanted to, but scoring 50 points is poison to the spirit of sportsmanship represented by the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. Ohio State stops Iowa, because Ohio State’s defensive line was still terribly frightening against burly man-ball even without Bosa, and Kirk Ferentz suddenly doesn’t decide to go for it on fourth down.
Kirk Ferentz is not at all being responsive to my wishes
Iowa kicks and makes a field goal, capping a 31-0 run by Iowa after Bosa’s ejection. Ohio State receives and puts together a drive. It was not an encouraging drive, but 12 plays and 52 yards later, they had assembled by far their best drive of the half. Josh Jackson then reminded everyone that he was an elite CB.
“It’s Josh Jackson Time” -Jordan Clarkson
Kirk Ferentz, ardently set against my wishes, runs the ball 3 times for a first down and, after 3 more, Iowa trots out its punting unit. Punting and sportsmanship is, after all, the cornerstone of Iowa’s team, an-
The organist is improvising carnival solos at this point. Iowa punter was going rogue and calling fake punts. Iowa’s punter likely has the provision that if he knows he can get the first down, he has the liberty to go off and run it. Up 31, the fields must have looked very green to Colten Rastetter, and Kirk Ferentz was real upset.
I called a damn punt and you did what?
A Ferentz who cannot stop his punter from not punting is hardly a Ferentz at all. Voters in this game may have noted Ferentz’s personal restraint at only calling running plays once up 45-17, but equally did they notice his lack of institutional control. Paul Chryst didn’t display this sort of organizational negligence.
Ohio State was not going to win this game, one way or another, so Kirk Ferentz was mad about a player going rogue in the middle of a football game, but that was one of the chief appeals of this game. That was a terribly stupid play by Rastetter. Everything about this game was stupid. This includes Ohio State’s very next play.
Barrett throws a pass taken straight from the Penn State game. That wasn’t the most difficult window, and the receiver was open, but Barrett was decisive and accurate. This would have been an encouraging moment under other circumstances. Identical passes earlier in the game were encouraging.
The fact that it came when it did – after Ohio State was good field position because an Iowa punter was carried by eagles’ wings and green hope across the line of scrimmage, after Iowa scored 31 unanswered points – made it an absurd moment in an absurd, gleeful spectacle that was the Iowa game.
That game isn’t over, by the way. Ohio State onside kicks with 4:00 left, because a 0.0001% chance of victory is not a 0% chance of victory, and Iowa’s offense takes the field. James Butler and Akrum Wadley have each sated their hunger for 30-yard runs; what of Toren Young in the top of the 48th?
Ohio State received the ball. Barrett hands off to Antonio Williams for an 8-yard gain. This was the first carry by a running back since the first play of the second half and only the second since 8:08 left in the 2nd quarter.
The sun sets in the 55th. See the game brighter than ever before, as black-shirted fans storm the field. Oh, god, yes.
ACT VIII: BASEBALL POSTGAME IN AMERICA
The magic of the Iowa game is that everything was wrong. Nothing about this game made any sense. To have watched this game on November 4th, 2017 was to have witnessed a black and gold swan flutter through Iowa.
For one: this was not an Iowa game, nor a Kinnick game. Kinnick’s magic is Kirk Ferentz staring through a thick sheet of drear, as your offense gets forced of the field in ways both flukish and forseeable (for Iowa’s defense is generally very good), as Iowa’s offense uses tight ends and RBs to gain 30 yards per drive, and lean themselves into the field position required for a 46-yard FG to win 11-9. Kinnick in a nutshell.
This game was Iowa’s offense outplaying Ohio State’s defense, and doing so with a ruthlessness Kirk Ferentz’s teams do not demonstrate. Denzel Ward was excellent. Nick Bosa was excellent and committed an extremely dumb penalty. And the rest of the defense got outplayed, and not strictly on their own demerits. Partially, the second half was a preview of 2018 generally and Purdue specifically. There were running plays with linebackers entirely out of position, with over-pursuit opening up holes that didn’t require any excellent running.
But T.J. Hockenson was an excellent TE – that he entirely ran around a covering LB is both a factor of the linebacker and Hockenson’s individual excellence. The offensive line was very good. Noah Fant was fast, and matching him up against LBs is a mismatch. Nate Stanley, as much criticism as he’s going to take when he gets selected 4th overall by the Bengals, made some extremely difficult throws into very precise downfield windows. Kirk Ferentz is a Big Ten coach, and as a Big Ten coach, he tends to make things unnecessarily hard on his passing game without any tangible benefit, but that speaks all the more to the merit of the individual players who made that plan work.
Did they ever make it work. Ohio State had not given up more than 50 points in a game since 1994. That game occurred 23 years prior to the Iowa game; going by raw points, this was the biggest performance against an Ohio State defense in any of the players’ lives.
But ‘raw points’ undersells the towering night quite a bit. To say It was Iowa is unfair to Iowa. They were not a good Power 5 offense, but there were 16 P5 offenses with worse offensive S&P+ rankings. To whatever extent they have earned their epitaph of ‘here lies Iowa, 8-4 with an average game over/under of 27.5,’ they were not Kansas and had multiple first-rounders on offense. Even so: Oklahoma scoring 50 would have been the first time in the players’ lives that any team had scored 50 against Ohio State – and however understandable it may have been, as good as Oklahoma was – it still would have been shocking. It was not Oklahoma that Ohio State played on November 4th.
The causes for this game match up well with what you would expect having seen in 2018, even if, on November 3rd, 2017, they would have been complete surprises.
To concede the obvious: Ohio State had linebackers. They struggled. Schiano gives his defenses an inch before the margin of error is spent. That line can be held, as it was – stoutly – against most teams in 2017. If the linebackers do not have the speed and expertise required to cover TEs and slot receivers, the penalty in Schiano’s defense is severe. When Ohio State was able to lean on singularly talented players to cover over any deficiencies in the schematic requests, Ohio State was a monster. Remove even one foundational piece, however, and things can collapse quickly and spectacularly.
The Iowa game proved instructive moving forward, both in how badly things could go if one position group surrendered that margin of error. If that margin could not be sustained in coverage, it was incumbent upon the D-Line to create enough chaos to make it impossible for the offense to take advantage, or the collapse would not be subtle. It took a starting defensive line of four NFL-caliber defensive linemen, two more top-5 caliber rush ends backing them up, and Denzel Ward to keep this defense from imploding. The defensive personnel on the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes was entirely college football playoff-caliber, without Nick Bosa. With Nick Bosa, they had raw talent necessary to pass as an NFL defense.
It does not seem sustainable to build a defense that, when composed of CFP-caliber players, is insufficient to keep Iowa to under 50. Unlike the Tressel teams, the story of the Iowa game was the following defense: don’t bend, break – and if you break, it will be 8- to 20-yard routes over the middle on easy throws.
As good as Nick Bosa was – despite an S&P+ ranking that shifted from 29th in the first three games and 61st afterward, and despite being a defensive end nearly as good at run-stopping as he was at pass-rushing – Ohio State’s issues in 2018 were not reducible only to missing one defensive end. But it was close. Nor were Ohio State’s issues against Iowa in 2017 reducible only to missing one defensive end, but the before-and-after of Nick Bosa’s ejection was as stark as any defensive player short of Ndamukong Suh could be. Bosa was ejected. A TD was thrown on the following play. There were several plays in a 3rd quarter that could have been stopped for a loss – or at the very least resulted in throwaways – were the Buckeyes’ D-Line able to get pressure on Stanley. Several other completions were made because a LB was blitzing, leaving, say, Matt Vandeberg uncovered over the middle. The best plays of Iowa’s second half were generally accomplished where Iowa either won or held Ohio State to a stalemate at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line creates chaos, and it’s hard to pin the absence of chaos on one player, but there is a stark line between pre- and post-Bosa ejection, both in the Iowa game and in 2018.
Joey Bosa committed to Ohio State in April 2012, and Nick Bosa’s finals season with the team was 2018. Urban Meyer’s entire tenure at Ohio State involved a Bosa. The same can almost be said for J.T. Barrett.
J.T. Barrett was from the start asked to do things he cannot do, and his place in Ohio State history is that he did them with regularity. He simply could not pick up where Braxton Miller left off in the VT, and then Barrett led Ohio State to 10 consecutive wins with 45 total TDs. Barrett was asked mount a comeback down 15 in the 4th quarter to the #2 team in the country, and then Ohio State saw one of the most compelling fourth quarters of football in its history.
He was still a football player with limitations. During the Iowa game, he threw three TD passes to wideouts who had several yards of separation over the top. That they were open is not likely an accident. There were multiple occasions where Iowa was beat over the top and Ohio State could not connect. Understanding how Ohio State used its quarterback and wideouts – how Barrett was able to put up outstanding numbers in an Ohio State air raid offense using stock shallow air raid routes, and ensuring that those routes were covered at the cost of being beaten over the top – this was the correct strategy to stop Ohio State’s passing attack in 2017.
Iowa’s defense was as follows: Don’t bend, break – and if you do, it will be a long TD requiring a good but not excellent throw to a QB who did struggle with routine accuracy. Iowa bet on that and surrendered 3 passing TDs to their 4 INTs.
Even in the face of Barrett’s strengths and limitations, Ohio State’s playcalling on offense was as rigid as it was on defense. For 35 minutes of football, from midway through the second to Ohio State’s last garbage time possession, Ohio State ran exactly one play that wasn’t a QB run or a pass. The romance of the Penn State game one week ago made you believe you could give Barrett the ball and all would work out. That Day and Meyer used that as a crutch not Barrett’s fault. Eventually, there would be no choice but to pass, but that point was not at 7:14 in the 2nd quarter in a tie game. Weber and Dobbins averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 11 attempts.
This trope followed Barrett through his entire OSU career: whether by play design or whether because defenses persistently followed the RB on read-option plays and Barrett was simply reading plays correctly – RBs did not run in Ohio State losses. This trope is more popular than it is causative – like during the 2015 Michigan State game, where Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 12 times for 33 yards, and giving him the ball would have only led to different complaints after a still-lost game. In Iowa, it is not far-fetched to suggest that the abandonment of a demonstrably effective run game may have changed the course of the game.
Enough about causation. The organ is still echoes 20 months later.
ACT LV-XXIV: STARGAZING NIGHT IN AMERICA
The Iowa game will be forgotten in 20 years. The organist’s music will fade, the game will be forgotten, new Ohio State teams will rise and fall, and the phrase ‘Urban Meyer’s teams at Ohio State were amazing but near the end really struggled on defense and got blown out sometimes’ will be all that remains of these three hours in Kinnick. The Iowa game will get lumped in with the 2018 defense in the minds of those looking back.
Do not do this. To do so would be to forget the absurd miracle Kinnick displayed.
This was a decisive defeat at Iowa’s hands, one that (at the time) destroyed Ohio State’s national title hopes. This defeat involved a terribly out-of-character game from Ohio State, one that contrasted completely with the team that took the field the week before and the week afterward. It was a terribly out-of-character game from an Iowa team that was coached by Kirk Ferentz. It was the most surprising football outcome in a very long time.
There were 7,290 fans in attendance for Len Barker’s perfect game against Toronto in 1981. Some were probably Blue Jays fans. In 2019, do these Blue Jays fans regret the fact that their team lost, having seen one of history’s 23 perfect games? Do the Cleveland fans in attendance regret that this perfect game happened, simply because it didn’t happen in a playoff season?
There was a podcast on SBNation, called Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody. Before its too-early passing from this world, its hosts, Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey repeatedly pointed out that football generally treats each game like a referendum to a degree that no other sport does.
A very large part of the cultural difference between the sports is both structural and necessary: a single football game extracts a greater physical price than any other major American sport, and for a coach to demand player pay that toll when you as a coach do not care about victory above all else will go poorly. The Sixers and Astros can tank and, as much furious ink bled across all the newspapers of the land, the strategy has largely paid off for both teams without serious long-term complications.
The Browns tried the same thing. The 2016-17 Browns went 1-31, and having a record that bad was explicitly the point, just as it was for the Sixers and Astros.
The Process worked: the Browns have Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Denzel Ward, had the cap space required to sign Sheldon Richardson, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham Jr. But in 2016 and 2017, Hue Jackson was executing a vision that ran directly contrary to what he was asking of the players, directly contrary to the ethos of famous coach speeches of the 50s and 60s, directly contrary to the ethos of football.
The Browns’ dysfunction of 2018 was inevitable. It occurred in light of a coach who, based on a fully correct perception of how football has always been played and coached, was fully paranoid that another sign of losing would result in his removal. Losing warps football teams’ psyches in a way that it does not do in any other sport, so the ‘referendum’ mindset exists in football in large part because, without it, the sport would not be able to retain the players’ singular focus on the path ahead.
This necessity to focus on winning above all else is vital to continue coaching or playing football. It is not necessary for fans. Fans do not surrender their bodies to the game on every snap. There is a gulf between Ohio State player and Ohio State fan that spans America’s widest chasms – the chasm is notable across class and age lines, marked across racial lines, and absolute across sex lines. A fan is not and never will be part of The Brotherhood.
On this side of the divider, we are connected to Ohio State by birth into the state religion, or by education to the university. We are outsiders to the football team. because our ties to the team, dear as they are, were mostly imposed by circumstance – we are fans who watch Ohio State football for enjoyment.
The requirement that fans maintain a singular focus on victory above all else is a conscious performance choice, be it a holdover from one’s former playing days or – more often – non-players choosing to simulate the dire intensity of the sport, choosing to believe the gap between The Brotherhood and fans is smaller than it is. It’s to imagine that gulf doesn’t exist – that way lies tweetin’ at croots. You must never go there.
Another choice available to fans is to love college football for its wild chaos. There are 130 FBS teams, all of them with fans. The college sport, more than the layer above it, has well-developed off-field idiosyncrasies that make the tapestry vibrant. Off-field traditions are a world of spectacle – some problematic, but many wholesome.
Ohio State saw their first Kinnick wave on November 4th. Waving to children fighting for their lives has nothing to do with whether Ohio State wins, but it is heartwarming all the same. The author cannot hear the crackling of Le Regiment in person and not get goosebumps, but Ohio State’s marching band will not help linebackers cover mesh.
The appeal of the college football is not exclusively the on-field outcome, but even the idea that the sport’s on-field appeal needs to be tied to the win-loss outcome is itself a choice.
The partition between victory and defeat is a very real one to the players; as fans, who will forever be outside The Brotherhood, that need not be the case. Enjoying the vivid uniqueness of the Iowa game is enjoyment from spectating all the same; enjoying the Iowa game is no more cruel than enjoying any blowout Ohio State wins – a team leaves humiliated in either case, and marveling at the outcome isn’t made more or less noble because your preferred team was the victorious one.
Ohio State may lose like this again in the next 30 years (as they did to Purdue); Ohio State may be as dominant as it was in 2017 in the next 30 years; they may lose to an Iowa-caliber team in the next 30 years, and Kirk Ferentz will likely be coaching Iowa at that point. But this game as it was – with a Kirk Ferentz-coached team faking punts intentionally, having rogue punters calling fake punts on their own, and scoring 55 damn points on what were, in many cases, excellent plays from Iowa players, within the context of a 2017 Ohio State team that at its best could beat anyone by 20 – there will likely not be another Iowa game in our lifetimes for Ohio State, and perhaps not for any other top-3 caliber program.
You came to the ballpark, and you witnessed something you’ve never seen before. The players are wearing shoulderpads rather than ballcaps, but you can still admire it. Eventually, those of us who can see will not be able to – there will be a last light for all of us, and it seems like a waste to not cherish as much of that light as we can. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, the Guild believes that the ability to be surprised – to marvel at a child who connects dots you’ve never connected before – is where the beauty of the world, and other people, can be found.
The decisive defeat of the Iowa game is part of the reason why that three game stretch in 2017 – from Penn State to Iowa to Michigan State – was the second-most-compelling Ohio State three game stretch since Tressel took over, and by far the most unbelievable. The Guild cherishes this comet that will not return in our lifetimes, growing larger with each inning and eventually leaving us, with us fondly remembering both its brilliance and its rarity.