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The unbeaten Hawkeyes face their biggest test of the young season, with No. 4 Penn State coming into Kinnick for a Saturday night bout. Zack Creglow

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Kirk Ferentz wasn’t kidding.

In advance of Saturday’s 6:42 p.m., Iowa-Penn State battle of unbeatens that'll unfold at Kinnick Stadium and on ABC, the 19th-year head coach surmised his Hawkeyes’ chances.

“We realize we have to play at our best and our highest possible level,” Ferentz said. “If we're going to be competitive in this football game.”

If we’re going to be competitive.

Surely some coach-speak, right?

After studying the situation, it seems Ferentz (unfortunately) is right.

The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions (3-0), a 12½-point favorite to extend their regular-season winning streak to 12 games, seem to be about the worst possible matchup for 3-0 Iowa.

They possess an offense full of rocket fuel that’ll spread you out and look for big plays — starting with quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Both guys are a threat to expose Iowa's two biggest defensive weaknesses, at tackle and safety.

On defense, the Nittany Lions have two shutouts in three games and compare to a Florida Gators unit that held Iowa to three points in the Outback Bowl.

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Sure, there is a Hawkeye path to victory. But as Ferentz said, it’ll take a near-flawless performance — like the one that helped upset 24-point favorite Michigan, 14-13, under the Kinnick lights on Nov. 12.

Ball control: Of Iowa’s 26 rushing attempts vs. Penn State a year ago, none went longer than 6 yards. A more creative offense under Brian Ferentz should help. 

Force third downs: The defense wants to put McSorley into make-or-break third-down spots, when the Kinnick night crowd can wreak the most havoc.

Win the big plays: Owning the turnover margin (18 seconds into the 2008 upset of Penn State, Iowa recovered a fumble at the Nittany Lions’ 1) and forcing Penn State's offense to manufacture points, instead of hitting home runs like it did a year ago, is essential.

It wouldn’t shock me if Iowa won, but near-perfection is a lot to ask from a developmental program in September. Get back to me in November, when Iowa hosts Ohio State — probably at night — and visits Wisconsin on back-to-back Saturdays.

Prediction: Penn State 35, Iowa 20

Now to the rest of the Big Ten, where we’re looking to bounce back from our first losing (against-the-spread) week of the year.

UNLV (1-1) at No. 9 Ohio State (2-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Ohio State by 40½

Prediction: The loss to Oklahoma a few Saturdays ago left Ohio State’s fan base with questions at quarterback and its team with zero margin for error. The Buckeyes must basically win out to reach the College Football Playoff. And that means J.T. Barrett must be great the rest of the way for Ohio State. So far, so good, as last week’s solid 38-7 win over Army restored a little Columbus order. Now comes an opponent that lost its home opener to FCS Howard and will be playing at 9 a.m. Vegas time. Ohio State has Rutgers after this, so there’s no look-ahead trap. Seems like a Buckeye buzzsaw. A roster loaded with talent is in a position where it must make a resounding statement every week. Ohio State 56, UNLV 10

Central Florida (1-0) at Maryland (2-0)

Time, TV: 2 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Maryland by 3½

Prediction: No matter how you slice it, this game is difficult to grasp. Scott Frost-coached Central Florida will be playing its first game in 23 days after Hurricane Irma postponed a matchup vs. Memphis and led to the cancellation of a game vs. Georgia Tech and nearly two weeks of missed practices. And Maryland, coming off a bye and as one of college football’s biggest surprises after a Week 1 road upset of Texas, will face its first real test with true freshman Kasim Hill at quarterback. Granted it's only two games, but the Terrapins are averaging 57.0 points and 8.0 yards per carry. That’s hard to do no matter the competition, so perhaps the simplest explanation is that Maryland might be legit. Maryland 34, Central Florida 28

Rutgers (1-2) at Nebraska (1-2)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Nebraska by 11½

Prediction: Here are two more teams that are difficult to read. Let’s start with the home team. As of Tuesday, a pair of tickets could be had for this game on StubHub for under $50. Nebraska’s fan base is melting down, having reached a low point in the Mike Riley era with Saturday’s 21-17 loss to a Northern Illinois team expected to be in the middle of the MAC. Quarterback Tanner Lee leads the FBS in interceptions thrown (7), and the offensive line isn’t blocking anybody. Saturday is as must-win as it gets for the Cornhuskers, and they’ve got the perfect opponent — one that had an 11-game losing streak until facing an FCS team (Morgan State) that still hasn't scored a point all season. The Scarlet Knights hung tough to start the season vs. Washington, but they shouldn’t be able to hang with Nebraska. The Huskers should win, but will they cover? I’ll go with barely. Nebraska 31, Rutgers 17

Georgia Southern (0-2) at Indiana (1-1)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Indiana by 24

Prediction: Full disclosure, I’m not a Georgia Southern football expert. I see the Eagles lost by 34 to Auburn and by 10 to FCS New Hampshire. The Hoosiers, coming off a 17-point win at Virginia and an off week after the cancellation of against Florida International due to Hurricane Irma, should be able to cover pretty easily then, right? Not so fast. Indiana seems to have a quarterback controversy brewing. Coach Tom Allen named pocket passer Richard Lagow the starter, even though he struggled in Charlottesville as dual-threat QB Peyton Ramsey shined. Allen said it’ll be a “gut feel” on who plays as each game unfolds. With the Big Ten opener on deck, perhaps Indiana struggles just enough with a choppy performance to stay below the number. Indiana 34, Georgia Southern 13

No. 8 Michigan (3-0) at Purdue (2-1)

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox

Vegas line: Michigan by 10

Prediction: Purdue has become the new flavor of the week, and it’s deserved. The Boilermakers, under innovative first-year coach Jeff Brohm, have won back-to-back games for the first time since 2012 after routing an SEC opponent on the road, 35-3 at Missouri. The previous 44-21 win against Ohio, one of the MAC’s top teams, was also impressive. And now normally-dormant Ross-Ade Stadium might be sold out with Purdue football generating excitement again. But ... I’m going the other way. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is an elite coach, and he has way better players. The young Wolverines have been sleepwalking the past two weeks at home after outgaining Florida, 433-192, in the season opener. Purdue will have Michigan's full attention, and with a bye week on deck, there’s no looking ahead. The Wolverines' fast, hawking defense should be enough to stifle Purdue’s rise, for one week anyway. Michigan 27, Purdue 13

Notre Dame (2-1) at Michigan State (2-0)

Time, TV: 7 p.m., Fox

Vegas line: Notre Dame by 4

Prediction: Two games in, the numbers are starting to show that last season’s 3-9 Spartan record might have been an aberration. They’re averaging 6.1 yards a carry while allowing 3.1; they’re throwing efficiently behind quarterback Brian Lewerke; and they’re suffocating the opponent’s passing attack — allowing a Big Ten-low 112.0 yards per game through the air. Michigan State remains young, and this game will be a litmus test to see if it’s “back” as a program. The Fighting Irish, coming off their own disappointing 4-8 season, looked good in routing Boston College last week. The talent level on both sides of the football is comparable. There’s no clear advantage in coaching; Mark Dantonio vs. Brian Kelly is a virtual push. Given that backdrop, it seems a home team playing under the lights that’s also getting points is the smarter play. Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 20

Leistikow’s ledger

Last week:4-5 vs. spread (6-3 straight up)

Season: 19-11 vs. spread (24-6 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.

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