Leistikow's Week 6 Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes due for a breakout; a big clash in Lincoln

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa football players aren’t hiding from the facts: They’re 0-2 in the Big Ten Conference, alone at the bottom of the West Division.

“It is who we are,” third-year starting defensive end Parker Hesse said. “That represents how we’ve played thus far. But going forward, we’re not going to strive to be a team that’s a play or two away.

"We’re going to fix mistakes and win football games."

After the Hawkeyes (3-2 overall) lost on the final snap vs. No. 4 Penn State, then fumbled away two golden second-half opportunities in a one-score loss at Michigan State, it feels like they’re determined. And due for a feel-good performance.

Will Iowa's running game, behind Akrum Wadley, find its footing this week against Illinois? The Hawkeyes have just 101 rushing yards during a two-game losing streak.

Iowa is a 17½-point favorite for Saturday’s 11 a.m., Big Ten Network-televised game against Illinois (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten).

The Kirk Ferentz program has always seemed to thrive when the doubters come out.

Right now, questions are flying — particularly with what’s supposed to be the bread-and-butter group of Iowa football, the offensive line.

“We’ve got to come off the ball and start attacking,” senior lineman Boone Myers said this week. “(We’re) just being a little tentative.”

The defense carried the mail against Wyoming, Penn State and Michigan State.

The offense won the day against Iowa State and North Texas.

But the Hawkeyes have yet to put it all together for 60 minutes in any of their five games. Now, they face an Illinois team that starts eight true freshmen and has changed to passing quarterback Jeff George Jr., who has a career 43 percent completion rate, on what is supposed to be a rainy Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

The last time Iowa started 0-2 in the Big Ten, in 2008, it returned home to thrash Indiana 45-9.

This feels like a perfect-storm week for the Hawkeyes to enjoy a similar breakout.

Prediction: Iowa 31, Illinois 10.

After going 4-1 against the spread last week — the only miss being the Hawkeyes (sorry) — let’s look at Saturday’s other Big Ten matchups.

No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) at Northwestern (2-2, 0-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Penn State by 14½

Prediction: Except against Iowa, Penn State has been able to name the score this season. The Nittany Lions scored 28 first-quarter points a week ago against Indiana, then coasted to the finish line — finishing almost even with the Hoosiers in total yards — in a 45-14 win. Northwestern, meanwhile, is coming off a deflating loss at Wisconsin after it led at halftime but gave up 24 consecutive points. Although this remains a talent mismatch, it’s worth noting that Pat Fitzgerald’s teams have been remarkably impressive in Game 5 the past three years — winning 20-14 over Wisconsin in 2014; 27-0 over Minnesota in 2015; and 38-31 at Iowa last fall. The Wildcats won’t win outright, but history says they'll hang around in a sleepy environment. Penn State 34, Northwestern 24

Minnesota (3-1, 0-1) at Purdue (2-2, 0-1)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ESPN2

Vegas line: Purdue by 4

Prediction: Emotions could be high in West Lafayette, as the Boilermakers honor the late Joe Tiller, who died last week. Purdue, under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, has done Tiller proud to date. Despite a dud of a second half against Michigan, the Boilermakers held their own two weeks ago in a 28-10 loss and have been much more impressive than expected. Minnesota, meanwhile, is coming off its first loss under its own new coach in P.J. Fleck. No doubt, the energetic Fleck will have his team revved up after a tough-to-swallow setback as a two-touchdown home favorite vs. Maryland. On paper, this looks like a toss-up. Give me the underdog to cover, but the home favorite to win. Purdue 24, Minnesota 23

Maryland (3-1, 1-0) at No. 9 Ohio State (4-1, 2-0)

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 30½  

Prediction: Maryland surprised the Big Ten last week by winning (at previously unbeaten Minnesota) behind essentially its fourth-string quarterback. The Terrapins are a tough team to figure out. They’ve now won two road games against Power Five opponents (Texas being the other) but lost at home by 28 to Central Florida. Maryland’s strength — its rushing attack that averages 233.5 yards a game — goes right into Ohio State’s. The Buckeyes’ defensive front seven is stout. And their Big Ten-best offense has hummed with 54 and 56 points in back-to-back weeks. I rode Ohio State past a big spread against a Big Ten East opponent last Saturday, and it covered easily. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ohio State 52, Maryland 14

Michigan State (3-1, 1-0) at No. 7 Michigan (4-0, 1-0)

Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., ABC

Vegas line: Michigan by 10½  

Prediction: Michigan State is coming off a solid-but-unspectacular home win against Iowa and has historically played the Wolverines toe-to-toe, no matter the talent disparity. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2006 season to find the last time Michigan won this annual grudge match by double figures. So why did the Wolverines open as nearly a two-touchdown favorite? A defense that’s stifling opponents, allowing an FBS-best 203.3 yards per game, is a good start. Plus, Michigan is coming off a bye week, giving new starting quarterback John O’Korn time to get comfortable running Jim Harbaugh’s show. But the Spartans have a good defense, too — No. 5 nationally — and a quarterback in Brian Lewerke who can make plays with his legs. Mark Dantonio always finds a way to keep this one close. Michigan 20, Michigan State 13

No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0) at Nebraska (3-2, 2-0)

Time, TV: 7 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 11½  

Prediction: After the tumult of losing to Northern Illinois then firing its athletics director, Nebraska has found a bit of a football groove — even if it was against Rutgers and Illinois, the Big Ten’s two worst offenses. Huskers quarterback Tanner Lee had his best game of the year against the Illini. And suddenly with a 2-0 league start, Nebraska has made this a crucial game in the Big Ten West. The Badgers, though, have the league’s most efficient quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, a run game that averages 5.1 yards a carry and a defensive line that averages four sacks a game and should dominate Nebraska in the trenches. Wisconsin played only one good quarter last week against Northwestern but still nearly covered a two-TD spread. I’m guessing it plays at least two or three good quarters in Lincoln. Wisconsin 34, Nebraska 17

Leistikow’s ledger

Last week: 4-1 vs. spread (3-2 straight-up)

Season: 24-18 vs. spread (32-10 straight-up)

Note: Saturday’s Indiana vs. Charleston Southern non-conference matchup (2:30 p.m., BTN) has no Vegas line.

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.