Leistikow's Week 12 Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes' run game needs more nastiness, Toren Young

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

There could be rain and/or snow on Saturday afternoon in Champaign, Illinois — all the more reason that the running game is the collective barometer for Iowa and Illinois in their 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network-televised football contest.

Even though the Hawkeyes are favored by 14½ points, the outcome is up for grabs if they cannot stop an Illinois rushing attack that ranks eighth nationally and has been unstoppable of late.

Despite not getting primary-back treatment, Toren Young (28) remains Iowa's leading rusher by a slight margin through 10 games. He has 480 yards to Mekhi Sargent's 454 and Ivory Kelly-Martin's 341.

Equally important, if the Iowa offense can’t run against the worst-by-far defense in the Big Ten Conference — its three-game losing streak will be extended to four.

Forget the puzzling usage of Noah Fant in the passing game for a day.

Put simply, the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) need to show they can run the football against a team that is allowing opponents 6.03 yards per attempt this season — 125th out of 130 FBS teams.

Some statistics that need to be corrected this week:

Iowa’s longest running play since the season opener is 23 yards.

Only twice this season has Iowa achieved its goal to average 4.5 yards per carry (4.8 vs. Wisconsin, 5.0 at Indiana).

No Hawkeye has a 100-yard rushing game this season.

Getting it done against Illinois starts with the offensive line. During film sessions, assistant coach Tim Polasek showed his linemen a block by left guard Ross Reynolds — in which he played with a nasty edge, driving his Northwestern defender 10 yards downfield and onto his back.

“(Polasek) said, ‘We need more of that.’ Everyone just finishing a little better, giving that little bit extra, fighting for one more yard on that block,” right tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “Something’s going to push through.”

I talked with Reynolds on Tuesday, and the fifth-year senior was visibly frustrated with Iowa’s lack of a rushing punch this season. The Hawkeyes are averaging 3.82 yards per carry this season. That ranks 102nd in FBS.

That’s not Hawkeye football.

“Everybody takes it personally,” Reynolds said. “We know that we all need to improve.”

I expect Iowa to run with a mean streak Saturday.

But there’s one more thing that would bring consistency and improvement to a rushing attack coming off its worst performance of the season.

More Toren Young.

He’s the least flashy of Iowa’s trio of sophomore running backs, but the 5-foot-11, 221-pounder runs with a nasty streak of his own. Give him a chance to carry 15 to 20 times against a young defense on a cold day, and you'll get your first 100-yard back of 2018.

(And, just saying — putting Fant on the field more often will help keep defenses honest.)

Stopping Illinois (4-6, 2-5) is another animal.

The Illini have rushed for an astonishing 813 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past two weeks against Minnesota and Nebraska.

A.J. Bush broke Illinois' single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback (187) vs. the Cornhuskers. Junior Reggie Corbin is averaging 10.01 yards per carry in Big Ten games. Illinois’ per-carry average of 6.29 in conference play trails only Pittsburgh (7.63) and Clemson (7.07) nationally.

This is no gimme.

May the more physical (and fundamentally sound) team win. That should be the guys in black and gold.

Prediction: Iowa 49, Illinois 35

Coming off a rough week of predictions, I'm joining the Hawkeyes in need for a bounce-back (all times CT):

No. 8 Ohio State (9-1, 6-1) at Maryland (5-5, 3-4)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Ohio State by 15

Prediction: There are only two games that really matter the rest of this Big Ten season — and the first one is next week: Michigan at Ohio State. That’s probably why the Buckeyes aren’t a super-heavy favorite here. Look-ahead spots are tricky. Maryland just lost starting quarterback Kasim Hill for the season with a torn ACL. Ohio State still has a strong aerial game with Dwayne Haskins, and pleasant weather is expected in College Park. Ohio State 35, Maryland 14

No. 15 Penn State (7-3, 4-3) at Rutgers (1-9, 0-7)

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

Vegas line: Penn State by 28

Prediction: Trace McSorley’s next win as Penn State’s quarterback will be his 30th and break a school-record tie with Todd Blackledge and Tony Sacca (29 each). And his next touchdown (rushing or passing) will be No. 100 in his career. It’s a very safe bet he gets both distinctions Saturday. The Nittany Lions are quietly nearing their third straight New Year’s Six bowl. Penn State 42, Rutgers 8

Northwestern (6-4, 6-1) at Minnesota (5-5, 2-5)

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

Vegas line: Minnesota by 1

Prediction: With the West Division already clinched, Northwestern would seem to be in a prime letdown spot — hence the line moving to make P.J. Fleck’s improving Gophers the favorite. Minnesota looked exceptional in dismantling Purdue last week. But Pat Fitzgerald’s guys don’t seem satisfied with merely punching their ticket to Indianapolis. A superior quarterback in Clayton Thorson will be the difference. Northwestern 27, Minnesota 17

Michigan State (6-4, 4-3) at Nebraska (3-7, 2-5)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Michigan State by 2

Prediction: I picked this as a Nebraska upset win in the preseason and haven’t changed that opinion. Scott Frost can validate the momentum his program is picking up with a signature victory against a highly respected opponent in the home finale. The Huskers have racked up at least 450 yards of offense in five straight games, but they haven’t played a defense even close to this since getting pummeled by Michigan. Nebraska 27, Michigan State 24

Wisconsin (6-4, 4-3) at Purdue (5-5, 4-3)

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

Vegas line: Purdue by 4½

Prediction: Uncertainties with both programs make this a tough game to pick. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (concussion protocol) was listed as questionable for this game as of Thursday. On the Purdue sideline, all the talk is about head coach Jeff Brohm — will he or won’t he bolt for the Louisville job after this season? The second-year Boilermakers coach would be wise to consider the fact that he’s gained impressive traction in a West Division that should be wide open for years to come. Purdue 31, Wisconsin 28

Indiana (5-5, 2-5) at No. 4 Michigan (9-1, 7-0)

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Michigan by 28½

Prediction: Just like with Ohio State, there’s a look-ahead danger for the Wolverines — who are absolutely rolling. Michigan is by far the better team but might be inclined to let the foot off the gas in the Big House. More important than scoring margin this week is keeping everyone healthy for next week's trip to Columbus. Michigan 35, Indiana 17

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 2-5 against the spread (2-5 straight up)

Season: 38-43 ATS (54-29 SU)

Career: 91-84-1 ATS (126-50 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.