The Ohio State defense is flying high off a week when they largely shut down Penn State’s Heisman front-runner Saquon Barkley in a 39-38 Buckeye win.
Now, they have to change gears quickly to get ready to face another star tailback, but in a very different style of offense. If you’re an old-school Big Ten fan, this is the week for you.
While Penn State has drawn a lot of praise for its innovative and wide-open scheme under coordinator Joe Moorhead, Iowa’s attack gets described as “tough” a lot more often than “innovative.” It will be a big change of pace for a defense full of players who will mostly be seeing the Hawkeyes for the first time.
Senior LB Chris Worley is one of the few Buckeyes who was around for OSU’s 34-24 win in 2013.
“I was a redshirt freshman. It was just a slugfest,” said Worley. “They started out hitting us right in the mouth. That’s when we said on the sidelines, ‘this is a real team right here.'”
Iowa’s big slugger this year is senior RB Akrum Wadley. He is averaging just 4.0 yards per carry, but while he doesn’t have the big-play explosiveness of Barkley, OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano says he does have some top-level skills.
“Elite change of direction. Elite. Very good pass receiver,” said Schiano. “They’re a zone scheme, so he’s hunting and pecking for daylight, stretching the defense. And then when he sees it, he sticks a foot in the ground. It’s very hard to react as fast as he can react. He has a rare change of direction, so it’s a challenge.”
While Wadley and Barkley don’t have a ton in common in either style or hype, the key to stopping them remains the same.
“Our kids are attacking the line of scrimmage and playing with discipline in their gaps and that’s really what run defense is,” said Schiano. “We’re a single-gap control defense. If you can control your gap and swarm through it, you’ve got a chance to play good run defense. Obviously someone has to make the tackle, hopefully a few people.”
While the Buckeyes have seemingly been a better tackling defense than in previous seasons, Schiano says there is still work to do.
“We’re getting better, but I wouldn’t say that we’re there. Tackling is a hard, hard thing in this day and age. Teams force you to defend sideline to sideline. This week will be no different,” he said.
“It will be a different way to do it, but they’re a zone scheme team and they get you running and then they pierce you. If you’re not under control, if you’re out of control, you won’t be able to make the tackle. It’s a huge challenge and they’re good at running the football. When they’re successful running it, they win.”
Wadley’s stats from this year largely prove that true. Twice this year, he has played significant minutes and averaged less than four yards per carry. The Hawkeyes lost both. In the five games where he’s been at or above 4.0, they are 4-1 and nearly upset Penn State in the only loss.
Worley thinks OSU’s defense is in for a fight.
“You never really know until you play a team. You kind of think you know, but it’s definitely going to be a hard-fought game,” he said.