Leistikow's Week 9 Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes equipped to handle hostility at Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The best way to make 106,000 opposing fans a nonfactor?

Iowa’s Ross Reynolds has the one-word solution.

“Score,” the senior left guard said. “Put points on the board.”

Penn State runs onto the field before their white out game against Ohio State in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018.

Doing that means the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes would beat No. 16 Penn State at its own game in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN-televised showdown.

In their last 10 games, the Nittany Lions have scored first. Saturday's blue-and-white-clad crowd at Beaver Stadium will be expecting that streak to reach 11.

Iowa (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) has made starting games fast a high priority since Week 3. During its three-game win streak, it’s been playing with a lead for 151 minutes, 7 seconds versus trailing for only 3:17 (a 3-0 deficit to Indiana that the offense answered with a five-play touchdown drive).

A loud crowd affects the opposing offense most, with the potential to disrupt all-important communication in calling plays and pass protections.

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Quarterback Nate Stanley has been a calming catalyst in Iowa's two road games (634 passing yards, 10 touchdowns). But the 88,000 combined fans he contended with at Minnesota and Indiana are still 18,000 short of what he'll face Saturday.

Though he was C.J. Beathard's backup and didn't play at Penn State in 2016, Stanley gained an understanding of the environment. He said he's prepared for the noise by being ultra-focused in the film room. His study likely showed that the Nittany Lions are excellent at rushing the quarterback (3.57 sacks per game, third in FBS) but susceptible against the run and in the back seven.

He should find friendly matchups with two of his top teammates — tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — roaming against Penn State’s inexperienced linebackers. Rain or shine, look for Brian Ferentz to deploy two tight ends on almost every snap Saturday.

If the Nittany Lions choose to play their usual 4-2-5 defense, Iowa can react by running the ball against a front that gave up 224 rushing yards to Indiana. If they defend with more girth (Penn State coach James Franklin is willing to play four defensive tackles to combat Iowa's run game), it’ll be Air Stanley for the third straight Iowa road game.

The Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2) are 6½-point favorites to break a string of consecutive home losses — both crushing late defeats against Ohio State and Michigan State. This is a game for Franklin’s team to show up or get shown up.

Based on the betting line, the prevailing thought is that Penn State will flex its muscles and rack up the points at Beaver Stadium.

But I see it completely the other way. I see a unified Iowa team on a mission, one that’s ready to reverse the 41-14 beating it took in 2016 and the 21-19 heart-breaker it suffered in 2017. I see a disciplined defense that's equipped to contain dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley and lure him into mistakes. And I see an offense that's built to respond to a hostile road crowd and whatever Penn State throws its way.

Prediction: Iowa 30, Penn State 17

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By the time Iowa-Penn State kicks off, we should know the results of two key 11 a.m. games that’ll impact the Big Ten West race. Wins by Northwestern and Michigan State would serve the Hawkeyes well.

After a strong 6-1 week against the spread, let’s take a whirl at this Saturday’s games.

Note: Indiana (4-4, 1-4) was a 2½-point favorite in Friday night’s late game at Minnesota (3-4, 1-4). Iowa would benefit slightly in tiebreakers if the Hoosiers were to win. Also, there was no consensus line at VegasInsider.com for FCS Bethune-Cookman (4-4) at Nebraska (1-6). That 11 a.m. game airs on the Big Ten Network.

No. 19 Wisconsin (5-2, 3-1) at Northwestern (4-3, 4-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 6½

Prediction: Get this: The Badgers are allowing 5.99 yards per play this season. That alarming stat ranks 13th in the Big Ten. Even Rutgers (5.92) and Nebraska (5.98) are better. Only Illinois (6.68) is worse. So, there’s clearly some systemic issues for Wisconsin's defense. But the Badgers can still mitigate that deficiency with their offensive bread and butter — time of possession. They rank eighth nationally in that category. Jonathan Taylor, who averages 6.5 yards a carry and 158.4 yards a game, should have a monster day behind Wisconsin’s brute offensive line. Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats are built to keep games close; five games this season have been decided by five points or fewer, including last week’s 18-15 escape at Rutgers. Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 24.

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Purdue (4-3, 3-1) at Michigan State (4-3, 2-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN

Vegas line: Michigan State by 1½

Prediction: There’s a chance that West Des Moines Valley alum Rocky Lombardi will get his first career starter at quarterback for Michigan State, with Brian Lewerke nursing a bad shoulder. Injuries are mounting for the Spartans; top receiver Felton Davis is lost for the year after tearing an Achilles tendon in last week's heated loss to Michigan. Meanwhile, Purdue is riding high off its impressive 49-20 rout of then-No. 2 Ohio State. The Boilermakers, having won four in a row, would seem to be the obvious choice. But just when you think Mark Dantonio’s Spartans are down and out, that’s usually when they re-emerge. Don’t forget what happened to Iowa the week after it routed Ohio State a year ago — it went on the road and had its worst game of the season. Michigan State 23, Purdue 21

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Illinois (3-4, 1-3) at Maryland (4-3, 2-2)

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

Vegas line: Maryland by 18

Prediction: After getting shut out in Kinnick Stadium last week, oddsmakers think the Terrapins will respond with authority. It seems to be weekly exercise of feast or famine for Maryland. And with Illinois possessing the league’s 13th-ranked rushing defense … the Terrapins should be fixing to feast. Illinois’ best shot at another win is next week at home against Minnesota. Maryland 42, Illinois 20

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Leistikow's ledger

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

Season: 30-33 ATS (44-19 SU)

Career: 83-74-1 ATS (117-42 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.