Without any further adieu, here we go:
1. Will Ohio State, at long last, establish the running game? This is the one pressing question in connection with this game. OSU has been under 100 yards for the last four games and is averaging a paltry 111.8 yards per game. The running game makes life so much easier for the passing game as well as the OSU defense.
As I pointed out a week ago, this is the single biggest factor in OSU's recent demise. Although I am not convinced the running back (OK, Lydell Ross) is the culprit in the team's lack of a running game. But I do believe Antonio Pittman has earned the right to get some carries in this game. Jim Tressel hates to put Pittman in deep in his own territory. But the time is now. It's time for this facet of the offense to pick it up.
A year ago, OSU's late-season run began with a strong second half rushing game against Iowa (at least that is what Tressel maintained). Now Iowa is no pushover with end Matt Roth and linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway among the best in the Big Ten at their respective positions. But it is time to put this struggling piece of the offense back together.
2. How will Justin Zwick respond? Zwick's status was debated from Cleveland to Cincinnati, from Toledo to Marietta and all points in between after he was sacked five times and failed to complete even some elementary throws last week against Wisconsin. But Tressel maintains that Zwick's superiority in practice is why he continues to play.
Will we see the Zwick who performed admirably against Marshall and in the fourth quarter against Northwestern? Or will he be as inconsistent as he was one short week ago? Hmmm.
3. Will Troy Smith get into this game? Some of his teammates came right out and said that Smith probably does deserve a chance to show what he can do when the bullets are really flying. But the answer to this question hinges on how Zwick plays. If he comes out and completes 4 of his first 12 passes, he might get the hook for a series or two.
Other than his public comments before the Northwestern game, Smith has played his cards right. His teammates say he is handling the snub he's gotten well and is working hard. (Kirk Barton said he could be the hardest worker on the team.) I am not of a mind that OSU's offensive woes are strictly Zwick's fault. But if he can't pick it up, it's time for somebody else to get a shot.
4. Can the offense generate some big plays? Iowa is stingy against the run, but the Hawkeyes' Achilles' heel is susceptibility to big plays. OSU needs to hit on some of the big balls Zwick misfired on a week ago. OSU desperately needs Santonio Holmes to get back involved here. Holmes should be able to shake Iowa's shaky corners. A week ago, Ted Ginn Jr. showed a move or two as well. Roy Hall, Bam Childress and the rest need to come back to the forefront.
5. How will Kirk Barton fare in his first start at right tackle? Barton subbed in for Tim Schafer midway through last week's loss to Wisconsin and held his own against UW's stellar Erasmus James. Now Barton faces the never-stop motor of Roth. It will be a test for this impressive looking redshirt freshman. If he passes it, he may be in for a prolonged run (say 3-1/2 years as a starter). As I mentioned earlier in the week, his confidence and look remind me of a young Rob Murphy, who came up big as a redshirt freshman when he was pressed into service.
Let's see how this experiment goes this week.
6. Will the defense get some pressure on the quarterback? I think I already know the answer to this one (unfortunately). OSU couldn't get to Brett Basanez two weeks ago and found UW's John Stocco just twice last week. The Buckeyes could not force the issue with any pressure on either QB in those losses.
The darn thing is Iowa's Drew Tate is a slippery bugger. He likes rollouts like Basanez killed Ohio State with. OSU will have its hands full keeping this brash sophomore in the pocket. He is small in stature (just 6-0), so the line – if it can't get to him – needs to get its hands up and hopefully bat down some balls.
Jeez, just make a play, guys. One.
7. Can the Buckeyes contain Iowa's high octane passing game? Tate has thrown for over 600 yards over the last two games against Michigan and Michigan State. This question goes along the lines of the previous one. It starts up front. Tate loves flanker screens, underneath throws, etc. Iowa does not favor a big play attack (they have no deep threats). OSU needs to be stout, smack the Iowa receivers around, bat some balls away and just play tough.
Tate will make a mistake or two. If he does, OSU must capitalize.
8. What impact will Dustin Fox have upon his return? The senior co-captain missed the N.C. State game and two losses after suffering a broken arm against Marshall. He is due to return for this game. I can't tell you OSU lost because Fox didn't play because I felt, overall, that corners Ashton Youboty and E.J. Underwood probably did the best they could.
But Fox's veteran influence can only help matters against a heady passer like Tate.
9. Can OSU return, say, two punts for touchdowns this week? Of course, this is a rhetorical question. Nobody would expect OSU to bring back two punts in a single game. With OSU's station-to-station offense, the Buckeyes need points any way they can get them. Remember, Michael Jenkins returned a punt for a touchdown last year against Iowa. Holmes returned one against Northwestern and Ginn had one last week.
I have noticed, however, that Iowa's standout linebacker Hodge goes down on punt coverage. He's a hard one to beat.
10. Will Ohio State cap this season with a bowl game? It's amazing, before the N.C. State game we wondered if Ohio State was a legitimate national championship contender, although we all saw the warning signals – even after that game. And now …
A win in this game would definitely improve the chances to reach bowl. With the way OSU has run the football this season, the Buckeyes can take no game – even next week's match-up with sadsack Indiana – for granted.
A win here would get OSU to 4-2. The Buckeyes would need two more wins to get the six they need to become bowl eligible. Leaving Iowa City at 3-3 overall and 0-3 in Big Ten play – and that would be for just the second time since 1943 – would make OSU's bowl hopes and the holiday vacation plans of many of you, I'm sure, somewhat murky.
Maybe this midseason hiccup is just an isolated thing. Maybe the coaches will stumble upon a winning formula. Maybe the players will find a way to make a winning play or two to swing this one.
But the one fact we know is this season is quickly slipping right on by. On paper, Ohio State should have as much or more talent than every team it plays. But for some reason, the Buckeyes just aren't getting it done. Is today the day they turn it all around? Hmmm.
(Try and) Enjoy the game. See you on the other side.