More important than playing Ohio State today for Anthony Hitchens is playing Ohio State.
Bear with us: Growing up in Lorain County and on his way to putting up some of the gaudiest football numbers the county has seen, Hitchens never was a big college football fan or Ohio State fan.
He liked the Browns and the NFL, so perhaps if he continues his career after a standout four years at Iowa, a return trip to the Buckeye State would have more nostalgia involved.
Instead, today is more about making new memories, rather than reliving childhood ones. And Hitchens sees the Hawkeyes’ game against the fourth-ranked Buckeyes as a perfect opportunity for a signature win for Iowa for what Ohio State is now, not what it was when he was a kid.
“It means a lot to be able to go to Ohio State and play, and we’re coming prepared,” Hitchens said this week from Iowa City, as the Hawkeyes ramped up preparations for their trip to Columbus after a bye week. “The bye week has helped us get focused on fundamentals as we make the trip. At the college level, you have to be ready to play and do the little things.”
Today, those little things will include doing his best to bottle up Braxton Miller and the rest of the potent Buckeyes offense. If you haven’t followed Hitchens since he left Clearview as the Lorain County Golden Helmet Award winner and two-time all-conference, all-county and all-state player, he’s a full-time linebacker now — and quite a good one.
Hitchens, a senior, planned to redshirt as a freshman, but that redshirt was removed when injuries befell the Hawkeyes. So he filled in on special teams and “had never been more nervous than that first kickoff.”
Last year, he led the Big Ten in tackles as a junior with 124, which ranked him sixth in the nation. Those numbers earned him plenty of accolades prior to this season — third-team preseason All-American by Phil Steele’s College Football preview magazine and College Sports Madness, plus a spot on the Butkus Award Watch List. He’s backed them up, too: His 59 tackles (23 solo) are second in the Big Ten, and his 5½ tackles for loss are tied for 10th.
Why has Hitchens been so successful in his switch to a role as a full-time linebacker?
“His commitment to the game, his effort,” Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Phil Parker said to Iowa reporters last week. “He plays full-go all the time, (in) practice. He recognizes the plays. And he’s played a lot, downhill a lot more. I think he’s done a great job of going in and studying the game plan and understanding what they’re doing to him. And he’s really done a really great job. Last year he had a lot of tackles. This year I think he just understands where the play is going, sees it faster.”
Columbus has been a house of horrors lately for the Hawkeyes. In 2009, in what amounted to a Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes eked out a 27-24 victory. The Buckeyes have won six in a row over the Hawkeyes in Columbus, by a combined score of 240-110.
Hitchens, meanwhile, has faced the Buckeyes once, in 2010 as a freshman when the Buckeyes beat Iowa in Iowa City, 20-17.
Add to the mix second-year coach Urban Meyer, a healthy Braxton Miller and another talented squad this year, and the challenge is even more daunting. Miller returned for the Buckeyes’ showdown vs. Wisconsin three weeks ago and accounted for 281 yards, then had another 271 yards against Northwestern in an emotional victory in Chicago the following Saturday night.
Meyer-coached teams, meanwhile, are 34-2 in games after bye weeks.
The Hawkeyes are 4-2 and coming off a loss to Michigan State two weeks ago. They’re still looking to erase the sting of a 4-8 finish last season, a year in which they lost their final six, all in the Big Ten. And what Ohio State will try to capitalize on — its offense — matches up directly with the Hawkeyes’ strength – their defense, making for an intriguing game ahead.
Led by Hitchens and fellow senior linebackers James Morris and Christian Kirksey, the Hawkeyes are third in the conference in points allowed at 16.8 and yards allowed at 290, and second in first downs allowed at just 14 per game. But the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in averaging more than 46 points per game, and rack up an average of 493 yards per game, third-best in the Big Ten.
“We’ll have a bunch of different calls and responsibilities differ,” Hitchens said about Iowa’s approach. “There’s no, ‘Hitchens you’re on (Miller)’ or anything like that. I may have responsibilities for him from time to time, but we’ll need everyone to play well.”
Meyer, in his weekly address to reporters in Columbus, knows the Buckeyes are in for a fight against the Hawkeyes defense.
“(They have) a very good defense,” Meyer said in Columbus. “… They are the same as they have always been on defense, real stout, real firm against the run. I believe they have not given up a rushing touchdown, I read that somewhere, and I can see that they are very good.”
Hawkeye fans for a weekend
Hitchens has been good for Iowa, and Iowa has been good for Hitchens and his family. He said this week that the coaches, from head coach Kirk Ferentz to Parker – a Lorain native who met with Hitchens and his family during the recruiting process — and the people he met on visits to Iowa City are what convinced him that was the place for him.
Hitchens is on pace to graduate, and through his Leisure Studies major, wants to help kids reach their potential.
And the decision to attend Iowa never looked better than last August, with Hitchens in camp in what figured to be his time to prove himself worthy of a starting spot on the Hawkeyes defense. Instead, his mind was at home, where Brad Anderson, the patriarch of the family with which Hitchens spent much of his formative years, was preparing for a liver transplant.
Iowa sent Hitchens home to be with Anderson as he recovered.
“When (Phil) Parker came to talk to us, we were sold on Iowa right there,” Anderson said by phone this week. “And we just really respect Iowa for (sending Anthony home). It speaks to why we sent him there in the first place.”
This weekend, Anderson and 12 other family members and friends will be in Columbus cheering for Anthony — Hawkeyes fans for a weekend.
“If the Buckeyes have to go down, I hope it’s Iowa that does it,” Anderson said. “This is something we’ve been looking forward to for three years, and it’s a real thrill to be able to celebrate what’s accomplished.”
Solomon Warfield, a St. Edward standout from Lorain, is also on the Iowa football team, but the 6-0, 185-pound defensive back is red-shirting.