Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and sports reporter Chris Cuellar look at how Iowa can rebound from a heart breaking loss to Penn State and take on a fast and physical Michigan State. Rodney White/The Register
If you're a Hawkeye football fan, you have to feel OK through four games.
But September's fifth and final Saturday? This one's a biggie.
This weekend's Iowa at Michigan State game (3 p.m CT, Fox) will play a big role in shaping the Hawkeyes' 2017 season.
If Iowa wins, it's a 4-1 team entering perhaps its easiest remaining game on the schedule against Illinois. Then comes the bye week.
If Iowa loses, it's confronting its first 0-2 Big Ten Conference start since 2008 and almost guarantees that the West Division title is out of reach.
The Hawkeyes need this. After an exhausting 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State, in which the defense played 99 snaps, their energy level for 60 minutes is going to be a primary storyline.
Before the season, I correctly had Iowa 3-1 at this point. But I had the Hawkeyes losing this one.
For the first time in my game-week predictions, I'm calling an audible.
I like what Iowa's offense has shown. I think quarterback Nate Stanley is close to hitting a game-changing deep ball or two, and the sophomore has shown he doesn't get rattled in big moments. The physical Iowa defense will have plenty of internal motivation after yielding 579 yards against Penn State.
Sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley has thrown for 846 yards with 12 TDs and one INT. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Michigan State, which has one senior starter on offense and one on defense, is not the same team Iowa faced in the 2015 Big Ten Championship game. The quarterback, Brian Lewerke, can be dangerous with his legs. But he's the fourth-best QB Iowa has faced this year, and Josey Jewell and the defense will be ready.
Michigan State is favored by 4½ points. In this Kirk Ferentz vs. Mark Dantonio series involving similar styles, five of the last eight matchups have been decided by three points or less or in overtime.
In Weeks 1 and 4, Iowa's defense was better. In Weeks 2 and 3, it was the offense. Iowa is due for a strong performance on both sides of the ball.
So give me the underdog to win straight-up in a higher-scoring game than most expect.
Prediction: Iowa 27, Michigan State 24
After a strong start to the Big Ten season, we're coming off our worst against-the-spread week of the season. It's time for a bounce-back. Picks in Saturday's games (Nebraska was set to face Illinois on Friday night):
Northwestern (2-1, 0-0) at No. 10 Wisconsin (3-0, 0-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC
Vegas line: Wisconsin by 15
Prediction: The last time Northwestern visited Madison, in 2015, it was a grind-it-out, 13-7 Wildcats’ win. Two years later, Clayton Thorson is still Northwestern’s quarterback. Justin Jackson is still Northwestern’s running back. And the spread is more than two touchdowns? It almost feels like Vegas is begging us to take Northwestern. So, let’s look at Wisconsin. The Badgers have been fantastic in almost every phase. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor (8.3 yards a carry) is the real deal. And the defense, despite some key injuries, is seventh in FBS. So, Wisconsin definitely has the ability to make this a rout. But Pat Fitzgerald knows this is the game – or else – if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West. Look for an inspired performance by the Wildcats. Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 20
Maryland (2-1, 0-0) at Minnesota (3-0, 0-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1
Vegas line: Minnesota by 13
Prediction: Sometimes, the stars align for teams. So far, that’s been the case for P.J. Fleck’s Gophers. They got rainy conditions in a trip to Oregon State, a huge benefit for a running team on the road against a Power Five foe. Then solid Group of Five team Middle Tennessee lost its star quarterback just before it was set to face Minnesota. Now, the Terrapins – a Week 1 winner at Texas – are down to their third QB after freshman Kasim Hill was ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. Coming off a bye, Minnesota should win this. But covering almost two TDs will be another challenge. There’s not a big talent gap here. The Gophers are still young, and run-oriented Maryland will be ultra-focused after losing by four scores at home against Central Florida. Minnesota 28, Maryland 20
Indiana (2-1, 0-1) at No. 4 Penn State (4-0, 1-0)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Penn State by 18
Prediction: Just like with Iowa, it’ll be interesting to see what’s in the tank for Penn State after an exhilarating victory in Iowa City. The Hoosiers have looked good at times this year. And this is a big trap game for Penn State, with a road trip to Northwestern on deck. But I’m going with my eyes here: Penn State has the best offense in the Big Ten, and that defense was impressive at Kinnick Stadium. We know James Franklin can be relentless (as evidenced by freezing the Georgia State kicker up 56-0), so give me the chalk. The Nittany Lions should roll. Penn State 42, Indiana 17
No. 9 Ohio State (3-1, 1-0) at Rutgers (1-3, 0-1)
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Ohio State by 30
Prediction: Last week, Ohio State somehow (barely) didn’t cover the 40 points against UNLV despite gaining 664 yards and doing whatever it wanted. This week, 30 is the tempting line. Ohio State continues to rack up impressive wins after the early-season loss to Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the perception is that Rutgers looked good last week at Nebraska. But in reality, the Scarlet Knights gained only 194 yards against an unimpressive Husker defense. And don’t forget, Rutgers lost at home to Eastern Michigan. Ohio State isn’t looking ahead, with Maryland coming to Columbus next week. This feels like the formula for a blowout. Ohio State 59, Rutgers 7
Last week:1-6 vs. spread (5-2 straight-up)
Season: 20-17 vs. spread (29-8 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.