Leistikow: A checklist to Iowa victory at Rutgers

Chad Leistikow

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — There will be no undefeated Iowa football regular season in 2016.

That’s because the Hawkeyes forgot what got them to 12-0 in 2015 during last week’s 23-21 loss to North Dakota State.

The loss was a humbling reminder that the margin of error — even after a Rose Bowl appearance and getting to within one spot of the College Football Playoff — remains small at Iowa. Little things can add up to a big, unwanted defeat.

"I didn't feel like doing anything with anybody around on Saturday," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It's just not much fun."

How to avoid that losing feeling for a second straight Saturday?

Hawkeye coaches make a list of goals for each game. Examples: Gain 200 rushing yards. Hold the opponent to 17 points or fewer. Win the turnover battle.

Going into Saturday’s game at Rutgers (11 a.m., ESPN2), I’ve got my own checklist to a Big Ten Conference-opening victory:

Start and finish with urgency

It was staggering to hear Hawkeye players say these things about their performance against North Dakota State:

“We weren’t ready to play.”

“It seemed like there was a lack of effort.”

“You can’t underestimate anyone.”

Rutgers, in its first three games, has fallen behind 24-0 (at Washington), 14-0 (to Howard) and 21-0 (to New Mexico) — in the first quarter. You can bet new coach Chris Ash is harping on his Scarlet Knights to be ready against No. 25 Iowa.

Play aggressive from the start, and don’t let up.

Five blitzes, minimum

You can count the number of Hawkeye blitzes on one hand through three games.

Why not send more pressure?

“I don't know,” middle linebacker Josey Jewell said. “That's all the coaches on that one.”

When your defense has had trouble getting off the field (opponents are averaging 33 minutes, 38 seconds a game of possession time), crashing extra bodies into the offensive backfield — whether it’s a run or pass play — increases the chances of a negative- or zero-yardage play.

The understandable counter-argument is that it leaves the secondary vulnerable to one-on-one situations. Iowa doesn’t like to give up big plays. But when one of the security blankets is Jim Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Desmond King (and especially Saturday, facing Rutgers 51.7-percent passer Chris Laviano), I’d take that trade.

100 percent snap-count awareness

This one should be easy. One of the 17 mental errors that Iowa counted in the NDSU loss was left tackle Cole Croston’s first-quarter false start that turned second-and-7 into second-and-12.

That led to a must-throw, third-and-long situation that left quarterback C.J. Beathard exposed. The result? Beathard was hit as he tried to throw, resulting in a pick-six interception.

Additionally, former Hawkeye Chuck Long shared Monday on KXNO-AM radio in Des Moines that Bison defenders seemed to have an excellent read on Beathard’s snap count — helping them get a good jump on the ball. Iowa was held to its lowest rushing total (25 carries, 34 yards) in three years.

Clean up these things, and better things will happen.

15 touches for Akrum

Unless Akrum Wadley’s bruised knee is worse than anyone’s publicly letting on (Ferentz said he expected Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr. to “be full speed” against Rutgers), get him the football.

Give Wadley the ball 15 times, he’ll likely break one or two big ones. (Why 15? Because in 30 touches this season, he’s scored four touchdowns.) Against North Dakota State, Daniels had 14 carries to Wadley’s four.

In a 37-28 win against New Mexico, Rutgers looked vulnerable against speed runs, especially up the middle. That suits Wadley, a New Jersey native who has moved past ball-protection issues that previously limited his opportunities. Wadley has gone 110 straight carries without a fumble.

Plus-8 on first downs

A surprising statistic through three games: Iowa 54 first downs, Opponents 62. The Hawkeyes need to leave New Jersey with that disparity erased.

Having James Daniels and Sean Welsh back at their rightful starting positions on the offensive line will help Iowa’s efforts to control the line of scrimmage — and the clock.

This past summer, my prediction was that Beathard would record his first career 300-yard passing game at Rutgers. I’ll stick with that, along with the same final score I predicted then: Hawkeyes 44, Rutgers 21.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.