Leistikow's Week 8 Big Ten picks: Iowa must find safe havens to beat Maryland

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

An unconventional opponent, a windy forecast and another makeshift defensive lineup awaits the Iowa football team Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz compared the Maryland preparation to that of a nonconference game. The Terrapins haven't played Iowa since 2015, and they’ve since had a coaching change.

Running back Mekhi Sargent (10) has not fumbled as a Hawkeye, which spans 63 carries and four receptions. He did not lose a fumble in his 205 carries for Iowa Western Community College last season, either.

“We don't have a lot of familiarity with them,” Ferentz said this week. “… What we have found is they're a really good football team. They've got a lot of really good players, very talented. They've got good size, good speed, good athleticism."

So, with plenty of unknowns (and 25 mph winds) swirling around this 11 a.m., ESPN2-televised game, the Hawkeyes can combat Maryland’s strengths by leaning on reliable safety nets to collect their third straight Big Ten Conference win.

The quickest way for Iowa (5-1 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) to stumble as a 9½-point favorite is to fork over easy points. The Hawkeyes have gift-wrapped 28 points during Big Ten play, with four turnovers deep in their own territory. They went minus-3 in turnovers in their lone loss, to Wisconsin.

The Terrapins (4-2, 2-1) rank fifth in the country in turnover margin, averaging a plus-1.5 advantage per game. That statistic adds to the scariness of Saturday's circumstances.

So, ball control must be the name of Iowa’s game Saturday. And it has the right trio of sophomore running backs with which to play it.

Get this: Toren Young, Ivory Kelly-Martin and Mekhi Sargent have lost just one fumble in their combined 456 collegiate carries.

  • Young has never fumbled in his 118 Iowa attempts.
  • Kelly-Martin lost his only career fumble (in 70 rushes) as a true freshman in Week 3 of 2017 against North Texas.
  • Sargent hasn’t fumbled in his 63 Iowa attempts, and he fumbled just once (but didn’t lose it) in 205 carries as Iowa Western Community College's workhorse last fall.

Maryland, no doubt, will look to clamp down on Nate Stanley and an Iowa passing game that has thrown for 634 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two weeks. That should leave the door ajar in Iowa’s run game.

If and when that closes, Stanley can go to another safe haven. Tight end Noah Fant has caught at least one touchdown pass in 11 of his last 13 games — with 14 total in that span.

Phil Parker’s defense will be well-prepared Saturday to contain Maryland’s run-oriented attack. As long as Iowa protects the ball, it’ll be bowl-eligible by Saturday afternoon.

Prediction: Iowa 27, Maryland 14

'Hawk Central' talks with Iowa's receivers coach, Kelton Copeland

The Hawkeyes aren't likely to get much help in the Big Ten West race this week, with their primary combatants facing two of the league's worst teams. Saturday's rundown:

No. 7 Michigan (6-1, 4-0) at Michigan State (4-2, 2-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Michigan by 7

Prediction: As good as Michigan looked in a 38-13 pasting of Wisconsin last week, the Wolverines have been unimpressive away from the Big House — losing at Notre Dame and escaping 20-17 at Northwestern. Michigan State is coming off its own impressive win, 21-17 at Penn State, in which Brian Lewerke hit Felton Davis for a long touchdown with 19 seconds left. Mark Dantonio has owned Michigan, having won eight of the past 10 in this series. Rain is in the forecast Saturday, which could make for a low-scoring game between two stingy defenses. But the metrics say Michigan’s better in almost every area. Michigan 23, Michigan State 13

Illinois (3-3, 1-2) at No. 19 Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 25

Prediction: Their College Football Playoff hopes done, how do the Badgers respond? This should be a get-well week against a team they can physically dominate. Look for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook to bounce back from the worst performance of his career (7-for-20, 100 yards, two interceptions at Michigan). Wisconsin 45, Illinois 16

Northwestern (3-3, 3-1) at Rutgers (1-6, 0-4)

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

Vegas line: Northwestern by 20½

Prediction: The Wildcats are firmly in the Big Ten West race after escaping Nebraska in overtime last week, and they’re doing it without a running game. Jeremy Larkin, who retired from football after Week 3, is still Northwestern’s rushing leader with 346 yards. No current player has more than 80. The 'Cats will cruise in this one, then welcome Wisconsin to Ryan Field next week. Northwestern 31, Rutgers 14

No. 16 Penn State (4-2, 1-2) at Indiana (4-3, 1-3)

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

Vegas line: Penn State by 15

Prediction: Like Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions' playoff hopes are done after demoralizing back-to-back home losses. Indiana has hung with very good teams (Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa), but not for a full 60 minutes. In Big Ten play, Penn State is averaging a league-best 7.0 yards per play; Indiana’s 5.0 is only better than Rutgers’ 3.8. Penn State 35, Indiana 17

Minnesota (3-3, 0-3) at Nebraska (0-6, 0-4)

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

Vegas line: Nebraska by 4

Prediction: Both teams are desperate for a victory. The Golden Gophers delivered a valiant performance last week at Ohio State, a 30-14 loss that could’ve been closer if not for their minus-3 turnover margin and two missed field goals. Look for a shootout, with both teams featuring top-end receivers (Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, and Nebraska’s J.D. Spielman and Stanley Morgan Jr.) against porous secondaries. If the improving Cornhuskers don’t end their colossal losing streak (currently 10 games) this week, they've got Bethune-Cookman next. Nebraska 38, Minnesota 31

No. 2 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0) at Purdue (3-3, 2-1)

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

Vegas line: Ohio State by 13½

Prediction: A battle of the Big Ten’s two most prolific offenses has the Buckeyes on upset alert. The Boilermakers are actually averaging more yards per play on offense (7.00 to 6.96) and are close on defense (Ohio State is slightly better, 5.62 to 5.69). Yet the home team is getting almost two touchdowns, and Purdue has been clicking since David Blough took over at quarterback. Ohio State 37, Purdue 34

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 3-4 against the spread (6-1 straight up)

Season: 24-32 ATS (38-18 SU)

2017 record: 53-41-1 ATS (73-23 SU)

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.