Leistikow: Navigating Iowa's road map to a Big Ten West title

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia.  — It looks like a 7-2 conference record will be enough to reign in the Big Ten West.

Despite its early-season struggles, can preseason favorite Iowa get there?

It’ll be tough. But it's doable.

A year ago around this time, I spoke with former Iowa quarterbacking great Chuck Long, a close Hawkeye follower and Big Ten Network analyst, to dissect the remaining schedule.

With Long’s insight, I outlined a 2015 road map to 11-1 or 12-0.

This year, the map is taking a little different route: Can the Hawkeyes (5-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) win four of their last five games?

If they can, they'll book a repeat trip to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the conference title game.

If Iowa is going to win the Big Ten West, it has to start (against Wisconsin) and finish (against Nebraska) with home success.

There are essentially two must-must-wins along the way, the first being Saturday’s 11 a.m. clash with No. 10 Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) on ESPN. A win would all but extinguish the Badgers' division-title hopes, making it a three-horse derby between Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern, with Minnesota (4-2, 1-2) having an outside shot.

“The key is going to be run defense,” Long says of Iowa-Wisconsin. “Notice I didn’t say who runs the ball better; it’s who stops the run.”

The other must-must-win is against No. 9 Nebraska (6-0, 3-0), which still has trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin — figure at least one loss there, with Iowa having a chance to hand the Huskers a second (while earning the head-to-head tiebreaker edge) in the Black Friday finale.

The Hawkeyes would likely still need Northwestern (3-3, 2-1) to lose two more games — at Ohio State on Oct. 29 and one more among Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota — along the way.

Encouraging signs can be found in improvement with the aforementioned rush defense since the Oct. 1 loss to Northwestern, which in turn has taken pressure (literally and figuratively) off of quarterback C.J. Beathard.

“They responded more defensively, which has gotten them back on track,” Long says. “And that’s where it has to start. … That’s always been the Iowa way. That's always been the Kirk Ferentz way."

The Hawkeyes have to win as 3½ -point underdogs against Wisconsin and then pull out a few more toss-ups to reach Indy.

With help from Long, here's the map to a 4-1 (or better) finish:

Wisconsin running back Corey Clement hurdles a Michigan State player on Sept. 24 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

Saturday: vs. No. 10 Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2)

Reasons to be encouraged: The Hawkeyes have shored up the rushing defense that was a big problem the first five weeks, and there should be no worries about coming out flat against a rival — especially with Big Ten West survival on the line.

Reasons to worry: Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel seems set to return after missing the Michigan and Ohio State games, and running back Corey Clement is getting untracked. Meanwhile, Iowa is more banged-up than it's been all season. If the Badgers can put up 450 yards against the No. 2 Buckeyes, what can they do against Iowa?

Chuck Long says: The lead-up to this game is reminiscent of last year’s Week 7 at Northwestern, when the Hawkeyes were decimated by injuries, particularly on the offensive line, but won by 30. “Whatever Kirk did in that week before the Northwestern game, he needs to do this week. One thing he’s really good at is creating that next-man-in philosophy. Everybody talks about it, but it’s hard to really create it.”

Oct. 29: Bye week

Though Iowa doesn’t play, this is a key week to make progress. A former offensive coordinator under Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Long says he would often use the bye to install something “in the bank” from fall camp, then roll it out for a big November opponent.

His suggestion: Use the bye to devise a package to get all-America cornerback Desmond King involved with the offense, something Ferentz hasn’t totally ruled out.

“Hopefully during the bye week, they look at Desmond King as a possibility for the offensive side,” Long says. “When he has his hands on the football, he’s the best player on the field. No question about it.”

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley stiff arms Minnesota's Jalen Myrick on Oct. 1 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Penn.

Nov. 5: at Penn State (4-2, 2-1)

Reasons to be encouraged: Iowa carries a program-record nine-game road winning streak into Happy Valley, and it should be healthier after the bye. Penn State has one of the Big Ten’s worst rushing defenses (allowing 208.8 yards a game). It’s winnable: The early Vegas line is a pick ‘em.

Reasons to worry: The Nittany Lions will have this one circled, with Purdue the week before and Indiana and Rutgers to follow. So Iowa will get their full attention in front of an electric crowd of 100,000-plus. If this game’s close, Penn State has the league’s most reliable placekicker in Tyler Davis (no misses in 18 career field-goal attempts).

Chuck Long says: Long called two Penn State games for BTN : against Kent State in Week 1 and at Minnesota in Week 5. “This has become a tougher game for Iowa. Early on, I thought Penn State was a mess. They have found their rhythm. It’s just amazing how much their offensive line has gotten better.”

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh leads his team into Kinnick Stadium to take on the Hawkeyes on Nov. 12.

Nov. 12: vs. No. 4 Michigan (6-0, 3-0)

Reasons to be encouraged: Remember 2008? Iowa had a mediocre start to the season but figured things out down the stretch and knocked off an unbeaten, No. 3-ranked opponent (Penn State) in a home November night game. Also of note: Iowa’s best player (King) is from Detroit and wasn’t recruited by Michigan.

Reasons to worry: This is easily the most talented team Iowa will face in the regular season, and Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh will no doubt bring some wrinkles into Kinnick and look to make an emphatic impression with the College Football Playoff committee. “He has a flair for keeping the fans interested,” Long says. “He reminds me a lot of Hayden Fry, to be quite honest.”

Chuck Long says: Iowa, an early 11-point underdog, needs to try to keep it close and make a late play to win. “Same game plan as the Minnesota game (a 14-7 Iowa win on Oct. 8). Same game plan as Wisconsin vs. Michigan (a 14-7 final in Ann Arbor). … You’ve got to study that tape. Iowa has a very similar team to Wisconsin. Run the ball, eat clock and battle in the trenches.”

Illinois has struggled in Lovie Smith's first season in Champaign, Ill.

Nov. 19: at Illinois (2-4, 1-2)

Reasons to be encouraged: This is Iowa’s most winnable game the rest of the way, with the Illini struggling to find consistency under first-year coach Lovie Smith. They rank 12th in the Big Ten in total offense and 11th in total defense.

Reasons to worry: With a former NFL defensive mastermind as coach, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Illinois leads the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-8). The Illini pushed Nebraska to the fourth-quarter limits in Lincoln, and they’ll have motivation to finish on a high note on Senior Day.

Chuck Long says: “With the two night games (before) and Nebraska after it, the Illinois game becomes the trap game of the year.”

Iowa freshman defensive end Parker Hesse pulls down Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Friday, Nov. 27, 2015.

Nov. 25: vs. No. 9 Nebraska (6-0, 3-0)

Reasons to be encouraged: Iowa has essentially owned 10½ of the last 12 quarters of this rivalry, the late-game meltdown in 2014 being the exception. No matter what’s on the line for Iowa, the final home game for Beathard and King provide built-in motivation. Despite a soft schedule, the Huskers are allowing 4.5 yards per rushing attempt through six games.

Reasons to worry: The Huskers have found an identity in Mike Riley’s second season: A powerful, creative running game and quarterback Tommy Armstrong limiting mistakes. Nebraska is 4-0 in games decided in the fourth quarter. “They have mojo. They have chemistry,” Long notes. “They have that piece that Iowa had last year."

Chuck Long says: “Their offense goes as Tommy goes. We’ll see how he is the second half of the year. Defensively, I don’t know how good they are yet. They’re vastly improved, statistically on paper, but I’m not sure they’re a dominant-type, West Division champion defense like Iowa was last year.”

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.