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Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar take a look at the new crop of Iowa basketball players, and weigh the Hawkeyes' chances against Northwestern. Rodney White/The Register

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Kirk Ferentz has repeatedly referred to his team’s 2017 football schedule as two six-game seasons.

A bye week split the two in the middle, and now it’s time for six games in a jam-packed 35 days.

Besides quickly, how will this unfold for the Hawkeyes?

We’ll get an idea Saturday when Iowa (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) enters Ryan Field as a 1½-point favorite against Northwestern (3-3, 1-2) in an 11 a.m., ESPN2-televised contest. It's arguably the most important game in determining whether Iowa can still do something special, or if it'll spend a treacherous November fighting for bowl eligibility.

The break has recently been good for the Hawkeyes. Iowa is 4-1 in its last five games immediately following a bye.

But that one was an ugly one — last year's 41-14 embarrassment at Penn State.

“As coaches, we’ve learned more about what our players are capable of doing,” Ferentz said this week. “And hopefully we can be a little bit smarter moving forward, take better advantage of the players that we have, and try to match up against the people that we have to play the next six weeks.”

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The Iowa coach is 8-8 vs. the Wildcats, starting with a 23-21 loss in Evanston in 1999. Chad Leistikow / The Register

Maybe this week, that means Iowa tries to win through the air.

Because on paper, this is a surprising challenge for the Hawkeyes in the trenches. Iowa’s paltry 3.67 yards per carry average ranks 12th in the Big Ten, and Northwestern’s 3.44 yards allowed per carry is a solid sixth.

Meanwhile, I’ve belabored the point this week that Iowa’s 4.51 yards allowed per carry is a red-flag number against one of the Big Ten’s best backs in Justin Jackson and an experienced Northwestern quarterback (Clayton Thorson) and offensive line (three junior starters and a senior).

Last week, Northwestern looked like the team many picked to challenge for a Big Ten West title with a 37-21 win at Maryland.

Without evidence that Iowa has fixed both sides of the run ledger, I’m sticking with my preseason pick that the Wildcats would win this swing game for both teams.

Prediction: Northwestern 28, Iowa 21

After two tough beats to settle for a 2-4 week against the spread, let’s see if we can at least reverse that in Week 8.

Maryland (3-3, 1-2) at No. 5 Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 24

Prediction: The Badgers escaped last weekend against Purdue, a late interception turning away a possible tying touchdown drive. But even in that narrow defeat, their statistical profile was impressive: 295 yards rushing, 199 passing and a run defense that allowed just 2.5 yards per carry. That’s all terrible news for Maryland, which has yielded 584 and 531 yards in lopsided losses the past two weeks. There’s no look-ahead worry for Wisconsin, either; Illinois is next. Look for the Badgers to impose their will on both sides of the ball and let Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor (986 yards, 7.8 per carry) enjoy a short day of work. Wisconsin 45, Maryland 10

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Purdue (3-3, 1-2) at Rutgers (2-4, 1-2)

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

Vegas line: Purdue by 9½  

Prediction: Purdue has been one of the Big Ten’s nice surprises under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, having stayed competitive against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin while thrashing Missouri on the road. Surely an easy cover against lowly Rutgers, right? A look inside the numbers show a Scarlet Knights team that’s gaining traction on the ground (274 yards last week vs. Illinois) and against the run (a respectable 4.0 yards a carry against). Purdue, meanwhile, has been opportunistic in the turnover department; its nine fumble recoveries are tops in the Big Ten. Maybe those even out at some point. Given that Purdue has a bigger home game next week against Nebraska and is a road favorite for the first time since 2012, it might come out flat. Purdue 27, Rutgers 24

Indiana (3-3, 0-3) at No. 19 Michigan State (5-1, 3-0)

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

Vegas line: Michigan State by 7

Prediction: Indiana football followers must wonder when they get a scheduling break. (Answer: In the final three weeks.) The 0-3 league start has come against preseason top-10 programs Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan — and now comes a more surprising ranked heavyweight. The Spartans continue to grind out wins behind a sturdy defense that ranks fifth nationally, and now it appears running back L.J. Scott (25 carries, 194 yards at Minnesota) is on track. But despite its tough schedule, Indiana has a reputable defense, too (No. 35 nationally) and seems to have a gamer at quarterback in Peyton Ramsey. The Spartans will likely be pushed to the fourth-quarter limits again. Michigan State 20, Indiana 19

Illinois (2-4, 0-3) at Minnesota (3-3, 0-3)

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

Vegas line: Minnesota by 13½

Prediction: The Gophers absolutely need this one. They’re 0-for-3 in winnable Big Ten games — losing late to Maryland and Purdue, then a rally falling short against Michigan State. And the schedule gets considerably tougher soon — at Iowa, at Michigan are next. It looks like Demry Croft is a better fit as Minnesota’s quarterback, though as of Thursday coach P.J. Fleck hadn’t announced whether the sophomore would make his first career start. Croft was suspended for two games earlier this season for undisclosed reasons, but he’s a more mobile dual-threat quarterback than Conor Rhoda was. Illinois, meanwhile, looked awful last week in a double-digit home loss to Rutgers. Minnesota will win, but the question comes down the point spread. Considering Illinois has failed to cover the past four games, let's row the boat downstream. Minnesota 34, Illinois 17

No. 15 Michigan (5-1, 2-1) at No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0)

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

Vegas line: Penn State by 9½

Prediction: Michigan is coming off a hard-earned, overtime road win at Indiana in which it overcame serious pass-game deficiencies and 16 penalties. The Wolverines are grinding along with a productive running game and the nation’s best defense. Well, consider this stat: Over its last 15 games, according to Oddshark.com, Penn State is 13-1-1 against the spread — the only failure to cover coming at Iowa a few weeks ago. The Nittany Lions are fresh off a bye, and even though they’ve got the biggest game of the year on deck (at Ohio State), James Franklin has assuredly kept his team’s eye on revenge after last year's 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor. Under the home lights in front of 100,000-plus, Penn State's No. 9-ranked national defense should be able to stifle Michigan’s one-dimensional offense. Penn State 24, Michigan 13

Leistikow’s ledger

Last week:2-4 vs. spread (5-1 straight-up)

Season: 30-24 vs. spread (42-12 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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