COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a loss Saturday, Iowa propelled itself into the Big Ten Legends Division title race.
Yes, you read that right. With a loss.
That's how screwy Big Ten football looks in that division. You can gain respect and create doubt in future opponents' minds with a setback like the Hawkeyes took, 34-24 to No. 4 Ohio State.
That's no knock on the quality of play, as nervous Bucknuts in the crowd of 105,264 at the Horseshoe will attest. This was a high-caliber game in a league that has been far short of such efforts.
Iowa (4-3, 1-2) should feel plenty proud. It was the better team in the first half, and for moments of the second.
The Hawkeyes roared 80 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening drive. They gained more yards rushing and passing in the first 30 minutes than OSU (7-0, 3-0). And they used two other drives of 67 and 69 yards against the nation's No. 15 defense to build a 17-10 lead at halftime.
“But you don't get prizes for playing a good first half,” U of I coach Kirk Ferentz said, which is why his message at halftime was “play even better.”
“You've got to play better,” he said, “because chances are they're going to play better, and they did.”
Ohio State won the game because its defense finally tightened up, but more importantly its two difference-makers on offense — quarterback Braxton Miller and tailback Carlos Hyde — did what they were supposed to.
Make a difference.
The good news for Iowa is that Ohio State needed big plays from stars like that to win. No one in the Legends Division has two experienced playmakers that good, giving the Hawkeyes hope in any remaining game.
Check out two prime examples of the impact Miller and Hyde had in the second half:
» On the third-quarter drive in which Ohio State tied the game 17-17, Miller completed 4 of 4 passes for 31 yards and Hyde bulled over from the 1-yard line to score the first rushing touchdown on Iowa this season.
» Miller and Hyde handled the ball on all 11 plays of the next drive that gave Ohio State its first lead at 24-17 with 3:15 to go in the third quarter.
Iowa tied the game at 24 on quarterback Jake Rudock's 85-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jake Duzey. But in the fourth quarter, Miller and Hyde decided the game.
The Hawkeyes, struggling to slow the OSU offense, finally put the Buckeyes in a third-and-seven hole at the U of I 28. Miller rolled right under pressure, appeared trapped, then reversed field and escaped for 9 yards and a first down.
On the next snap, the 235-pound Hyde took a handoff, shook off two vicious hits and staggered 19 yards into the end zone for a 31-24 lead.
Next possession, again on back-to-back plays, Miller scrambled 12 yards on third down to keep the drive alive, then Hyde roared 28 yards to set up the clinching field goal. Hyde finished with 149 yards rushing and Miller 102.
Seeing Miller dart and dash like he did before his sprained knee in early September had Ohio State coach Urban Meyer smiling.
“I noticed in practice he looked really good this past week,” Meyer said. “He looks like he feels great.”
As decently as Iowa played, it still gave up 495 yards and never forced Ohio State to punt.
“We have to get better,” Ferentz said. “There were a lot of things that we did today that are correctable that would have made it tougher on an opponent.”
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I must compliment Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis, whom I have shoveled dirt on since he was at Texas for stodgy game plans and poor use of talent.
Iowa, coming off a bye week, used three tight ends much of the day, confusing Ohio State for long periods. Duzey, who entered the game with four catches for 31 yards, caught six passes for 138 yards and snared the second-longest pass in school history for a tight end.
Rudock, a sophomore who completed 19 of 34 passes for 245 yards and three touchdowns, earned praise for operating well in his first road game against a Top 10 team.
“We put a lot on our quarterback today,” Ferentz said. “He was poised and did a lot of good things.”
But Rudock didn't want to hear it.
“I always judge it by the final score,” he said. “That's how you judge a team and how you judge quarterbacks. I'd rather throw four picks and get a win.”
Point taken. But this was a game, considering the weakness of the Legends Division, that Iowa can derive value from, even after losing.
“We came here to win and we didn't, so I don't feel good,” linebacker James Morris said. “But did we improve? I believe we did. And we've got a lot left to play for. I kind of like the way things work out for us from here on out.”
As crazy as that may sound from a team with a losing league record, that's what passes for normal in the Legends Division.