Sports columnist Chad Leistikow talks with Danny Lawhon as they look ahead at the Iowa Hawkeyes' match up against the Purdue Boilermakers. Michael Zamora/The Register
Wipe your mind of what you think Purdue football is, and try to understand what it actually is.
These aren’t Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers anymore.
First-year coach Jeff Brohm has brought an innovative offense, as everyone expected he would from his free-wheeling days at Western Kentucky, but has added a saltier-than-expected defense.
In seven Big Ten Conference games, the Boilermakers have allowed an average of 3.6 yards per rush (sixth in the league) and 19.1 points a game (fourth) while ranking sixth in total defense.
All of those numbers rank ahead of the defense Purdue faces Saturday: Iowa's.
Not to mention: Purdue’s offense is averaging 62 more yards per game in conference play than Iowa's.
“They're wide open, very creative, and you know, you've got to defend a million things when you play against these guys based on what we've seen,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week, “and I'm sure there's more to come.
“To me, the real story is their defensive improvement. Because they haven't (historically) been good enough on defense to win consistently and they're playing really at a high level right now.”
That is the multipronged challenge facing the favored-by-7½-points Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game, to be televised by Big Ten Network.
The Boilermakers (4-6, 2-5) haven’t allowed an opponent into the end zone more than twice in a game since a 28-10 loss to Michigan on Sept. 23. In that span, they’ve won two Big Ten games by a combined 33 points while losing four by a combined 21 — including a 17-9 loss at Wisconsin, where Iowa just got crushed in all three phases while gaining only 66 yards.
And Brohm even warned us this week: The Boilers will come out swinging on Iowa’s Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium.
“If we come out on the short end, I don't want it to be because we didn't throw enough punches,” Brohm said. “I think we've got to be aggressive across the board on offense, defense and special teams and try to win the game. That's got to be what this week is about.”
Iowa is favored because it’s in a bounce-back spot and has shown it can be dominant, with its impressive 55-24 win against Ohio State two weeks ago. And the Boilers’ numbers are friendlier because they haven’t played Penn State, Michigan State and the Buckeyes — like Iowa has.
But here’s a stat in which Hawkeye fans can find comfort. Since the start of the 2013 season, when this fifth-year senior class arrived, Iowa is 6-0 in home games following a road loss, with an average margin of victory of 15.2 points in those wins.
I think Akrum Wadley breaks his first 40-yard-plus touchdown run of the season and fellow senior running back James Butler scores for the first time as a Hawkeye as Purdue succumbs to another close loss.
Prediction: Iowa 22, Purdue 17.
Speaking of bounce-backs, I could use one after last week's 2-5 against-the-spread mark.
Rutgers (4-6, 3-4) at Indiana (4-6, 1-6)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Indiana by 11
Prediction: The Hoosiers are doing OK through the air with Richard Lagow the past two weeks, to the tune of 52-for-82 passing for 515 yards and four touchdowns. Rutgers, meanwhile, has shown it hasn’t given up on the season — it led Penn State, 6-0, into the second quarter last week. But the Scarlet Knights still have the worst offense in the Big Ten. Indiana 24, Rutgers 10
Minnesota (5-5, 2-5) at Northwestern (7-3, 5-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Northwestern by 7½
Prediction: It’s Senior Day in Evanston, a day to honor one of the Big Ten’s most productive running backs in recent memory, Justin Jackson. The Wildcats continue to survive, none of their five straight wins coming in dominant fashion (including three in overtime). Minnesota probably enjoys confidence after a 409-yard rushing day against Nebraska, but with rival Wisconsin on deck, the breaks will again fall the Wildcats’ way. Northwestern 27, Minnesota 16
Michigan (8-2, 5-2) at Wisconsin (10-0, 7-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas line: Wisconsin by 7½
Prediction: The Badgers, who actually opened as a 10-point favorite, couldn't have been more dominant than they were vs. Iowa last week. Now comes a stiffer test, because the Wolverines have an elite defense to counter Wisconsin's and won't hesitate to be ultra-aggressive. Points will be at a premium. But I think the game Michigan really wants is next week, against Ohio State. Wisconsin 24, Michigan 13
Illinois (2-8, 0-7) at Ohio State (8-2, 6-1)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC
Vegas line: Ohio State by 41
Prediction: According to Oddshark.com, this spread is the largest ever for a Big Ten vs. Big Ten matchup. Amazing. Yet it is quite plausible that a veteran juggernaut like Ohio State would easily win by six touchdowns against the young, self-destructive Illini. The Buckeyes, though, are in a heavy lookahead spot with a trip to Ann Arbor on deck. Ohio State 48, Illinois 10
Maryland (4-6, 2-5) at Michigan State (7-3, 5-2)
Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox
Vegas line: Michigan State by 16
Prediction: The Spartans have to be reeling after last week’s 48-3 drubbing in the Horseshoe. But they’ve also got quite a bit to play for — a 9-3 season (on the heels of 3-9 and perhaps a spot in the upper-tier Citrus Bowl.) Plus, this a revenge spot after the Terrapins took down Sparty a year ago in College Park. As long as Michigan State avoids turnovers, it'll be fine. Michigan State 31, Maryland 10
Nebraska (4-6, 3-4) at Penn State (8-2, 5-2)
Time, TV: 3 p.m. Fox Sports 1
Vegas line: Penn State by 26½
Prediction: There’s a question of motivation on both sides, not to mention uncertainty at quarterback for Nebraska as Tanner Lee works through concussion protocol. The Nittany Lions' offensive line has withered and isn’t good enough to take advantage of a woeful Husker rush defense. With or without Lee, Nebraska should be able to keep it within four touchdowns. (Right?) Penn State 42, Nebraska 20
Last week: 2-5 vs. spread (6-1 straight-up)
Season: 42-37-1 vs. spread (60-21 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.