COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio State tight end Jake Ballard was stunned when he was told that with a win against Iowa on Saturday, the Buckeyes are headed to the Rose Bowl.
Yep. Less than a month after losing to a Purdue team that had won just one of its first six games, the No. 10 Buckeyes find themselves needing only a win over the 15th-ranked Hawkeyes to start booking flights for Pasadena, Calif.
"No, I had no idea," Ballard said, trying hard to not let his jaw hit the table in front of him.
To get back to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1996 season, Ohio State, a team that couldn't seem to win a big game for three years, now must win two in the span of a little more than a week.
The Buckeyes handled then-No. 11 Penn State 24-7 in Happy Valley on Saturday, the same day Iowa lost quarterback Ricky Stanzi and its first game at home against Northwestern, 17-10.
Those two outcomes set the stage for a winner-take-all slugfest at Ohio Stadium. The victor is assured of a Rose Bowl berth against an opponent from the muddled Pac-10 (the front-runners are Arizona and Oregon).
The Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) have won three games in a row since that 26-18 loss in West Lafayette, Ind. The victory over Penn State ended a string of six losses in a row against higher-ranked teams.
Coach Jim Tressel said his players realize beating the Nittany Lions doesn't mean much if they don't follow up.
"They knew once the ball game was over that although that was awfully tough, what lies ahead is even tougher," he said.
The Buckeyes have been contemplating this stretch of three games ever since the calendar changed.
"It's going to be a battle in November. Whoever wins November is going to win the Big Ten championship," defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "You can kind of look at it like a boxing (championship). You can't just win one fight and win (a title). It's going to be critical for us to bring it every game."
Now all that separates the Buckeyes from at least a share of a fifth consecutive conference championship is an Iowa team (9-1, 5-1) that will be starting a redshirt freshman quarterback, James Vandenberg. Stanzi went down in the second quarter with a badly sprained ankle. He has undergone surgery and will not play against Ohio State or in the Hawkeyes' regular-season finale against Minnesota.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said his team is regrouping after the loss. The Hawkeyes have won their last six on the road, including wins over Big Ten toughies Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State and last year's Outback Bowl game against South Carolina.
"It's not our first road trip this year," Ferentz said. "We've handled it. We haven't let it be a distraction. From that standpoint I think that's certainly a positive. But I don't know if it's going to be enough for us. We're going to have to do everything right to win this football game."
Tressel knows that there's no margin for error despite the changing fortunes of the two teams.
"It's pretty hard to be more nervous than I am normally," he said. "It is harder to handle success, it's just the truth, but I'm probably most concerned with the fact that I know how good Iowa is."
An Ohio State win would make the annual rivalry game at Michigan relatively insignificant. If the Buckeyes were to beat Iowa, they would win any tiebreaker with their three closest pursuers (Iowa, Penn State and Wisconsin). The only things on the line might be an outright Big Ten title, not to mention the pride that comes with knocking off your archrival.
The Buckeyes are well aware of the enormity of the Iowa game.
"After it's all said and done, people looking back on this season will say that Penn State and Iowa were turning points of that season," Ballard said, finally catching on to what was at stake. "And the Buckeyes really came together."
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Ohio State hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since the 1996 season. Pasadena hasn't seen Iowa since 1990. One of those streaks will change after Saturday's winner-takes-all showdown in Columbus. The Hawkeyes will have to do it without starting QB Ricky Stanzi, who was injured in Iowa's loss to Northwestern last week.