- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas and key players to watch as No. 4 Ohio State and Iowa return from bye weeks and dive back into the Big Ten season on Saturday at the Horseshoe (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2).
Something has got to give: In a classic strength-against-strength showdown, there can only be one winner. Iowa has had one the stoutest rush defenses in the nation so far this season, and it has put up a brick wall in front of the end zone through six games, refusing to allow a single touchdown on the ground. The Buckeyes are averaging more than 280 yards per game running the football, and Carlos Hyde is as close to a sure bet to score in the red zone as there is in the country. Ohio State is well aware of the job the Hawkeyes did in slowing offenses down in the first half of the year, and it has taken it as a personal challenge to break that scoring streak that the Hawkeyes are bringing with them on the road.
Better Braxton: Both uncharacteristically hesitant as a rusher and careless with the football, Braxton Miller had two items at the top of his bye-week checklist after a rocky outing in a victory over Northwestern -- make sure his knee is totally healthy and keep a vice grip on the ball. Miller admitted that he wasn't quite feeling "like his old self" entering the off date, and the extra time to rehab and rest his left knee following two physical outings since returning from his early-season sprain should provide a boost for the Buckeyes. As for the pair of fumbles, Ohio State coaches went so far as to have him keep a football in his hands during stretching to emphasize ball security moving forward, and Miller should have plenty of opportunities to prove that lesson has been learned.
On the line: For all the attention the Hawkeyes have received for their work against the rush, the Buckeyes have actually been even better as their rebuilt defensive line has zipped through the development process and anchored a unit that currently ranks sixth in the nation, allowing 86.2 yards per game. With defensive tackle Tommy Schutt returning from a broken foot to play his first game of the season on Saturday and end Adolphus Washington getting healthier after groin and ankle injuries, Ohio State might actually get even stingier with more depth and talent on the defensive line. Iowa's rushing attack hasn't been nearly as productive as Ohio State's, but establishing a presence on the ground will be a priority as Iowa will try to set up play-action passes and attack an inconsistent secondary.
Island living: The draft stock Bradley Roby came back to improve this season hasn't exactly suffered during the first half of the season, but it also hasn't soared yet. The redshirt junior cornerback hasn't been as consistent in locking down receivers in one-on-one situations as he was a year ago during his breakout campaign, but when he's on his game, few in the country are more capable of shutting down a side of the field and refusing to allow a target room to operate. Through five games since returning from suspension, Roby has 28 tackles and two interceptions and came up with a crucial blocked punt for a touchdown against Northwestern. But both he and Ohio State are still looking for more, and he'll likely again be in position to heavily influence the outcome as the defense leaves him isolated in the secondary as the Buckeyes try to stuff the run.
One at a time: A winning streak that stands at 18 games and the increasing volume about the national title chase as the season crosses the midway point could be distractions for the Buckeyes, and Meyer has hinted that the pressure might be starting to build for the Buckeyes. But throughout their unbeaten run since he took over last year, the constant each week has been an uncanny ability to focus on the next opponent, tune out the noise and go to work regardless of whether an opponent is ranked or not. That approach is going to be tested regularly now that the toughest stretch on the schedule is over, and Iowa is more than capable of taking advantage if the Buckeyes let their guard down.