Chad Leistikow and Danny Lawhon look ahead to the Hawkeyes big game this weekend against Penn State and what a win could mean for Iowa. Brian Powers, firstname.lastname@example.org
Miguel Recinos has been a very reliable kicker lately. But Iowa football backers hope he’s booting extra points, not field goals, during Saturday’s Big Ten Conference clash at Purdue.
For the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2) to win this critical West Division contest, they’ll need seven points at a time when they reach prime scoring territory. Threes are great for Iowa when basketball season opens next Thursday, but not inside Ross-Ade Stadium during Saturday's 2:30 p.m., ESPN2-televised game.
The Boilermakers (4-4, 3-2) are favored by 2½ points.
“If we make it all the way down to the red zone,” touchdown-making tight end Noah Fant said, “why not score a touchdown rather than just a field goal?”
Purdue features an offense that ranks second in the Big Ten in yards per game (492.4) and first in yards per play (6.9). No wonder that even Ohio State couldn’t keep pace with the Boilermakers two weeks ago and got routed, 49-20, despite running 98 plays.
Iowa's two losses can be traced to inefficiencies inside the opponents’ 10-yard line. An early fourth-down failure against Wisconsin and a late-game interception at Penn State sabotaged the Hawkeyes from having a perfect record.
The stalls have been glaring the past two weeks. Against Maryland and Penn State, Iowa scored just two touchdowns on six trips inside the 10-yard line — and one of those came on a fake field goal.
In the past two weeks, Iowa has run 13 offensive snaps inside the opponents’ 10-yard line. Five rushes netted 11 yards; Nate Stanley is 1-for-8 passing, his lone completion a one-handed grab by Brandon Smith in the back of the end zone vs. Maryland.
It’s been shaky at best.
“The field’s condensed. It’s that much harder to score down there, and you have to be that much more focused,” Stanley said. “… We’re just maybe hurting ourselves a little too much, whether it be a penalty or maybe a missed assignment out on the field."
The Iowa quarterback injured his thumb in the second half at Penn State. He also discusses the Hawkeyes' anemic red-zone offense of late. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
The solution can be found in past success. Prior to Maryland, Stanley had thrown five touchdown passes in his previous nine pass attempts inside the 10-yard line — with three scores going to tight ends, one to a running back and one to a fullback.
Iowa needs to make 6-foot-5 tight ends Fant and T.J. Hockenson priorities No. 1 and 1A in the passing game this week. Don’t make them the check-down options. Make them the go-to options. Maybe even consider third tight end Nate Wieting as a red-zone passing wrinkle.
Can Iowa get the win?
Last week, I trusted my gut and eyes over the analytics by picking Iowa to beat Penn State by two scores, my first Hawkeye miss of the year.
This week, I’m defaulting to the analytics — which give a slight edge to Purdue, at home — even though my gut says Stanley and the Hawkeyes bounce back.
Purdue’s statistical profile is similar to Penn State’s — a high-powered offense with a respectable defense (Purdue’s 20.4 points per game allowed in Big Ten play is actually better than Iowa’s 21.0) — and probably has a better game-day coach in Jeff Brohm.
Another troubling observation: With Stanley as the starter, the Hawkeyes are 1-5 in Big Ten games decided by single digits. That underscores why it’s imperative for Iowa to seize seven points at a time Saturday.
Prediction: Purdue 28, Iowa 24
The best help the Hawkeyes can get in the Big Ten West this week is from themselves. A win would set up next week's home matchup vs. Northwestern (time TBD) as the latest biggest game of the season.
On to the rest of Saturday's Big Ten games (all times CT), where I like favorites to cover:
Nebraska (2-6, 1-4) at No. 8 Ohio State (7-1, 4-1)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas line: Ohio State by 18
Prediction: In the five games since the humiliating "rock bottom" loss at Michigan, Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers have gained a staggering 2,709 yards — or 541.8 yards per game. They now face a vulnerable Ohio State defense that’s had two weeks to stew about its drubbing at Purdue. The previous time Urban Meyer was shellacked (at Iowa, 2017), his Buckeyes responded with a 48-3 home rout of Michigan State. Ohio State 52, Nebraska 28
Rutgers (1-7, 0-5) at Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Wisconsin by 30½
Prediction: Quarterback Alex Hornibrook (concussion) has been cleared to return after he missed the Badgers’ key road loss at Northwestern. Rutgers’ season of disarray continued with the dismissal of a linebacker who was charged with an attempted double-murder plot. It’s hard to envision how the Big Ten’s top rushing offense vs. the 13th-ranked rushing defense is competitive. Wisconsin 48, Rutgers 6
Michigan State (5-3, 3-2) at Maryland (5-3, 3-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2
Vegas line: Michigan State by 2½
Prediction: The reinstatement then firing of Maryland coach D.J. Durkin made national headlines this week. How the Terrapins handle that distraction is just as important as how their high-powered rushing offense combats a Michigan State defense that ranks No. 1 nationally against the run. The Spartans hadn’t announced whether West Des Moines Valley alum Rocky Lombardi (who looked good in beating Purdue) or Brian Lewerke (injured right throwing shoulder) would start at quarterback. Michigan State 20, Maryland 19
Minnesota (4-4, 1-4) at Illinois (3-5, 1-4)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Minnesota by 9½
Prediction: Quarterback Tanner Morgan will get a second straight start for the Gophers after an impressive showing against Indiana that gave P.J. Fleck his first Big Ten win of the season. Illinois' Lovie Smith, whose defensive coordinator resigned Monday, has lost his last seven November games, all by double digits. Minnesota 35, Illinois 24
No. 13 Penn State (6-2, 3-2) at No. 5 Michigan (7-1, 5-0)
Time, TV: 2:45 p.m., ESPN
Vegas line: Michigan by 10½
Prediction: Coming off a bye, the Wolverines may need to shake off rust. It helps to have an oppressive defense (3.71 yards-per-play against, easily No. 1 in the nation) that might be facing Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (who played through an injury against Iowa) at less than 100 percent. The last time the Nittany Lions lost by double digits? At the Big House in 2016. Michigan 28, Penn State 13
No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) at Northwestern (5-3, 5-1)
Time, TV: 6:15 p.m., ESPN
Vegas line: Notre Dame by 9½
Prediction: It’s usually foolish to doubt Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald as a home underdog. But at some point, the Wildcats’ 2018 carriage is going to turn into a pumpkin. Their 4.65 yards per play ranks 125th out of 130 FBS teams. And this might look like a Fighting Irish home game, with Chicago's proximity to South Bend and their passionate fan base gearing up for a possible College Football Playoff berth. Notre Dame 27, Northwestern 13
Last week: 4-0 against the spread (2-2 straight up)
Season: 34-33 ATS (46-21 SU)
Career: 87-74-1 ATS (119-44 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.