Leistikow's Week 11 Big Ten picks: Time for Hawkeyes to reveal their true identity
As Kirk Ferentz discussed his Iowa football team’s next opponent at his weekly news conference, he practically spoke with envy.
“When you look at them on tape, I think one thing is very apparent,” Ferentz said of Pat Fitzgerald-coached Northwestern, which comes to Kinnick Stadium for Saturday’s 2:42 p.m., Fox-televised matchup. “They've got an identity. A clear identity.”
“The thing that jumps out at you, they're really good at reacting to situations. Whatever comes up, they seem to be prepared.”
Those quotes were notable, because a few hours earlier, Iowa defensive tackle Sam Brincks — one of the team’s few fifth-year seniors — said this: “We have to develop our own identity, if we want to do anything well.”
And so here we are. The 2018 Hawkeyes are 6-3 overall and have looked impressive in all three football phases at various times this season. Yet they lack an identity.
The defense was downright nasty in wins against Northern Illinois (which, by the way, is 6-0 in Mid-American Conference play), Iowa State (a legit Big 12 title-game contender) and Maryland. The offense looked unstoppable in wins against Northern Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana. The special teams have delivered some of the season's most memorable moments.
Yet with a 3-3 Big Ten Conference record, the Hawkeyes trail Northwestern (5-4, 5-1) by two games in the West Division standings with three to play. That’s because Iowa hasn’t found a way to win close games; Northwestern has.
The Wildcats opened the season with a four-point victory at Purdue. They survived at Rutgers by three. They put together an improbable rally to outlast Nebraska in overtime.
In contrast, the Hawkeyes have been mercurial. They've had one complete performance in nine tries (at Indiana). The special teams failed against Wisconsin. The offense failed at Penn State. The defense failed at Purdue.
“We’re right there,” senior receiver Nick Easley said. “All three losses, at some point or another, we’ve been in control of the game, in control of our destiny.”
Saturday’s the time to change that, a time to affirm a one-word identity that is within reach for this Iowa team.
The Hawkeyes are 10½-point favorites, an acknowledgment from sharp oddsmakers of their potential.
They’ll need to be selectively aggressive on offense against one of the league's best linebackers in Paddy Fisher. They’ll need to channel their pre-Purdue pass rush against an opponent that has given up more sacks than any Big Ten team. And they’ll need to be perfect on special teams.
Back in black in front of a Blackout home crowd ... if Iowa is determined to play a full 60 minutes — and the Kinnick fans can help, especially in the fourth quarter — a complete and thorough victory is there for the taking.
Prediction: Iowa 34, Northwestern 14
Even if Northwestern loses, it's still the Big Ten West front-runner. And East front-runner Michigan isn't losing Saturday. Let's get to the games (all times CT):
No. 7 Ohio State (8-1, 5-1) at Michigan State (6-3, 4-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas line: Ohio State by 3½
Prediction: For all the heat the Buckeyes are feeling after back-to-back uninspiring performances against Purdue and Nebraska, they still control their Big Ten fate. A cold, windy forecast in East Lansing, though, favors the more physical defense. The Buckeyes might be better off starting dual-threat Tate Martell at quarterback on a passing-challenged day. Michigan State will go with Brian Lewerke over Clive native Rocky Lombardi at quarterback. Michigan State 24, Ohio State 21
Wisconsin (6-3, 4-2) at No. 20 Penn State (6-3, 3-3)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC
Vegas line: Penn State by 9
Prediction: Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (concussion) is questionable to play; Jack Coan is ready for his second start in three weeks. And the Badgers just lost powerful nose tackle Olive Sagapolu for the season. Penn State, meanwhile, might not have quarterback Trace McSorley (with that knee injury he suffered against Iowa) and is staggering after a 42-7 loss at Michigan. With so many unknowns, I’ll lean on one constant: Wisconsin still knows how to run the football. Wisconsin 24, Penn State 21
Illinois (4-5, 2-4) at Nebraska (2-7, 1-5)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Nebraska by 17
Prediction: Both teams picked up momentum last week, with varying results. The Illini racked up a staggering 12.3 yards per carry (and 646 yards of offense) in a home blowout of Minnesota. Nebraska seems on the way up after a valiant 36-31 loss at Ohio State. The only safe prediction in this matchup: There will be lots of points as the Big Ten’s two worst defenses square off. Nebraska 52, Illinois 28
Maryland (5-4, 3-3) at Indiana (4-5, 1-5)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Indiana by 1½
Prediction: Off their bye week, the Hoosiers must snap a four-game losing streak to maintain bowl hopes. In any game involving Maryland, the key is the opponent’s run defense. The Terrapins have been dominated by the league’s three best run-stuffers (Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan) and dynamic against everyone else. Indiana is allowing 4.34 yards per carry, 77th in FBS. Maryland 28, Indiana 24
No. 4 Michigan (8-1, 6-0) at Rutgers (1-8, 0-6)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
Vegas line: Michigan by 38½
Prediction: It’s full steam ahead for the Wolverines, who should already be game-planning for Ohio State in two weeks. Since this one won’t be close, let’s catch up with former Iowa City West star Oliver Martin. The redshirt freshman receiver has seven catches for 89 yards with the Wolverines. Michigan 41, Rutgers 0
Purdue (5-4, 4-2) at Minnesota (4-5, 1-5)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ESPN2
Vegas line: Purdue by 11
Prediction: If there is a miracle scenario for Iowa to win the Big Ten West, help from the Golden Gophers is needed — they face Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin to finish. Don't get your hopes up. The Boilermakers have all kinds of momentum, and P.J. Fleck just fired his defensive coordinator after the embarrassment at Illinois. In Big Ten play, Gophers opponents are completing 70.4 percent of their passes. That’s an "uh-oh" when you're facing savvy Purdue coach Jeff Brohm. Purdue 45, Minnesota 28
Last week: 2-5 against the spread (6-1 straight up)
Season: 36-38 ATS (52-22 SU)
Career: 89-79-1 ATS (124-45 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.