Sports columnists Chad Leistikow and Danny Lawhon breakdown the Iowa Hawkeyes' next match up with the Wisconsin Badgers. Michael Zamora/The Register
It's OK to let your imagination run a little wild after Iowa's 55-24 bludgeoning of Ohio State last weekend.
Arguably the most impressive of Kirk Ferentz's 141 wins in 19 years here featured sensational offense, takeaway defense and clever special teams. For a young roster that was trying to find consistency, it sure felt like a seismic breakthrough.
“The way we performed last weekend is a wake-up call to how well we can perform all the time," said sophomore Nate Stanley, who on Thursday was named the Manning Award winner as the nation's quarterback of the week after a five-touchdown, no-interception performance against the nation's 12th-ranked defense.
Can Iowa keep it up?
Back when I used to play a lot of golf, I would typically shoot somewhere in the low 80s for a par-72 course. I got an occasional 77 or 78; sometimes I would have a clunker close to 90.
One day, though, everything clicked. Drives were splitting the fairway. The 8-foot par putts I often missed were falling. I even chipped in from behind the green on the way to the best round of my life, a 74.
The Hawkeyes' trouncing of Ohio State was like that 74.
The question is: What kind of round do the Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) have in them for Saturday's 2:30 p.m., ABC-televised game at No. 3 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) inside Camp Randall Stadium?
And what will it take?
The Badgers, the Big Ten's primary College Football Playoff hope, are 12-point favorites.
They're 83-10 at home since 2004. They run the football better than any team in the conference, at 244.8 yards per game. The average size of their starting five offensive linemen is 6-foot-6, 322 pounds.
Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann sizes up this week’s challenge. Chad Leistikow/The Register
"Across the board, those guys are huge," linebacker Ben Niemann said. "Our offensive line and theirs are both physical."
Iowa's best chance to win is move the ball through the air, because Wisconsin stops the run. It allows just 87.8 yards a game, fourth in the country.
The Hawkeyes would be well-served to get an early lead, and force the Badgers and quarterback Alex Hornibrook to play catch-up through the air. Iowa's rush defense remains pretty pedestrian — allowing 4.2 yards per rush, far off the goal of 3.3 set by defensive coordinator Phil Parker.
If we're comparing it to my earlier golf example, it feels like Iowa needs to shoot 77 or 78 to win. That would be a really good round with very few mistakes. But it feels like an 81, shall we say, is more par for the course.
Prediction: Wisconsin 21, Iowa 13
If Iowa does pull the upset, Hawkeye fans should root for Purdue later Saturday night to knock off Northwestern. Let's get to the rest of this week's Big Ten games:
Indiana (3-6, 0-6) at Illinois (2-7, 0-6)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Indiana by 8
Prediction: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me thrice, shame, SHAME on me. Three weeks in a row, I’ve picked Indiana to cover the spread. Three weeks in a row, the Hoosiers have let me down after a strong start. This is now a trend. Yeah, it sort of feels like Indiana is due to put a full game together. But maybe the turnover-prone Hoosiers are just not good. And it is basketball season in Bloomington, after all. The woeful Illini have a young roster but at least have something to get excited about, with true freshman Cam Thomas likely getting the reins at quarterback. Indiana 27, Illinois 20
Nebraska (4-5, 3-3) at Minnesota (4-5, 1-5)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1
Vegas line: Minnesota by 2½
Prediction: This is a big one for both teams' bowl eligibility. If Nebraska loses, it would have to sweep Penn State (road) and Iowa (home) to get to 6-6. If Minnesota loses, it'd need to sweep Northwestern (road) and Wisconsin (home). The Cornhuskers have the better roster, but how much fight do they have after losing a third straight home game and with coach Mike Riley likely on his way out? Minnesota’s young and has a vision for the future as P.J. Fleck looks for some positive momentum. On a cold day in Minneapolis, I’ll side with the hungrier team with the better running game. Minnesota 24, Nebraska 20
No. 16 Michigan State (7-2, 5-1) at No. 11 Ohio State (7-2, 5-1)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas line: Ohio State by 17
Prediction: Well, doesn’t this look familiar? Ohio State enters a game against a fundamentally sound team that plays well as an underdog — yet the spread keeps climbing. The winner of this game seizes control of the Big Ten East, so there’s obviously a ton at stake. Ohio State is more experienced, more talented and playing at home. But doubting Mark Dantonio as a big underdog is flat-out foolish. The Spartans have a solid defense, similar to Iowa's, and quarterback Brian Lewerke continues to make winning plays. Those two things should be able to keep it close. Ohio State 28, Michigan State 24
Rutgers (4-5, 3-3) at No. 13 Penn State (7-2, 4-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Penn State by 31
Prediction: If he can get one more win, Rutgers coach Chris Ash would merit serious consideration as Big Ten coach of the year. For now, Dantonio is probably the front-runner. But what Ash has done to get the Scarlet Knights competitive after a 2016 filled with embarrassment is impressive. That said, Rutgers has yet to hang with the big boys of the Big Ten — with losses of 59-0 to Ohio State and 35-14 to Michigan. The Nittany Lions could suffer a hangover after losing at Michigan State last week, but will more likely be looking to take out some frustration. Penn State 41, Rutgers 7
Bowl projections: Opportunity arises for Notre Dame after Big Ten contenders falter
No. 22 Michigan (7-2, 4-2) at Maryland (4-5, 2-4)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Michigan by 17
Prediction: Don’t look now, but the Wolverines could be gearing up for a big finish (at Wisconsin, vs. Ohio State after this). Since getting drubbed in Happy Valley, Michigan has looked unstoppable on the ground (705 rushing yards in two games), led by former Iowa commit Karan Higdon. Maryland, meanwhile, is bad at defense and could be down to its fourth starting quarterback this season in walk-on Ryan Brand if Max Bortenschlager (game-time decision) can’t go. Maryland coach D.J. Durkin certainly knows Michigan well as its former defensive coordinator. But the Terps just don’t have the horses right now. Michigan 37, Maryland 17
Purdue (4-5, 2-4) at Northwestern (6-3, 4-2)
Time, TV: 6 p.m., ESPN2
Vegas line: Northwestern by 4½
Prediction: The Wildcats are running out of lives. They’ve gone to overtime in an NCAA-record three straight weeks, and they’ve won them all. This is a team that’s imperfect yet impressive. Purdue continues to be decent under first-year coach Jeff Brohm. He now turns to Elijah Sindelar at quarterback, with David Blough (broken ankle) out for the year. The Boilermakers’ defense has shown it can be stingy, and Northwestern’s third-down offense ranks 13th in conference games. Feels like the Northwestern magic is due to run out. Purdue 21, Northwestern 19
Last week: 4-3 vs. spread (4-3 straight-up)
Season: 40-33-1 vs. spread (54-20 straight-up)
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.