Leistikow's Week 3 Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes can't play it safe against Iowa State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

AMES, Ia. — To reign again in the Cy-Hawk showdown, the 18th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes need to play like underdogs and Big Ten Conference title contenders at the same time.

They need to show up Saturday at Jack Trice Stadium as a team with nothing to lose … not as the team that’s won four consecutive meetings against Iowa State.

The pressure is on the hosting Cyclones this weekend, not Iowa.

The ESPN “College GameDay” hype is surrounding Ames this weekend, not Iowa City.

The coach in the white-hot spotlight will be Matt Campbell, who is 0-3 against Iowa, not Kirk Ferentz.

If Iowa is going to have a special season, it needs to play clean football on the road. All five road games are a bear, starting with Saturday's. To experience a championship-level year, Iowa needs to be closer to 4-1 than 0-5 away from Kinnick Stadium.

Iowa's chances at Iowa State will improve if A.J. Epenesa, left, can get into a lot of clear-cut pass-rush situations.

A win Saturday amid all the hype, and the Hawkeyes will validate themselves as a top-15 national team with more prove-it games against Michigan and Penn State looming.

A win Saturday, and it’ll almost certainly be the most impressive nonconference road win by any Big Ten team in 2019. That’s important, not only for Iowa, but for a league trying to crack the College Football Playoff after a two-year drought.

"People will say we don’t listen to hype or whatever, but we do hear it," senior defensive back Michael Ojemudia said in one of the most candid quotes I heard from a Hawkeye player all week. "We just take it as an opportunity to showcase ourselves."

Despite the massive line movement, though, in Iowa’s favor — the Hawkeyes went from early 4½-point underdogs to 2½-point favorites (it's back to 2) — be careful about discounting the Cyclones in Saturday’s 3 p.m. game on Fox Sports 1.

The more I studied Iowa State’s 29-26, triple-overtime win against Northern Iowa, the less confident I became in the Hawkeyes’ chances. On the surface, sure, Iowa State (a preseason-ranked team for the first time in 41 years) looked pretty average in Week 1.

But watching the film, it was clear that the defense was legit. JaQuan Bailey, Ray Lima, Marcel Spears Jr., Mike Rose, Greg Eisworth … all outstanding players. Also, the offense was hardly ineffective in gaining nearly 500 yards. Weird penalties, a borderline fumble that became UNI’s only regulation touchdown and typical Week 1 execution issues kept this one from being a 27-6 or 31-6 Cyclone rout.

And if that score was 31-6, would Iowa really be considered a favorite this weekend?

Perception can be skewed with such a small sample size.

This is still the well-rounded Iowa State team most people expected.

That said, Iowa's good. Maybe really good.

That’s why the hype for this game is deservedly off the charts. I view it as a true toss-up.

When it came time to make a prediction, I thought back to recent history. In Iowa’s wins in 2015, 2017 and 2018, it had to rally from an early deficit. The games in Ames have been particularly harrowing, decided in the final two minutes or overtime. That victory formula can't be consistently reliable. That's why I think Iowa's best approach is to strike quickly, rather than poke around for a quarter or two. Getting an early lead would help the Hawkeyes lean on their biggest strength (the A.J. Epenesa-led pass rush) against the Cyclones’ greatest weakness (their pass protection).

Being too conservative or timid — playing like a favorite — would play right into Iowa State’s hands.

My gut feeling says that Iowa plays it too safe and falls behind … and can’t catch up this time against Campbell’s best defense yet. (By the way, I do like the under in this one if you can get 44½ or higher.)

Man for man, Iowa’s personnel is better.

But it feels like Campbell and the Cyclones, playing in front of maybe the series’ most raucous pro-Iowa State crowd ever, are due to pull one of these out.

Prediction: Iowa State 20, Iowa 17

Oh, a little tip if you're wandering into an Iowa sportsbook this week: Gamble responsibly. Or not at all. I feel like I have a good handle on the Big Ten. But whoa, last week was rough.

Ohio State at Indiana

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 16½

Prediction: It’s only two games, but the fact that Ohio State’s defense appears to be upgraded from last season (the Buckeyes are allowing 3.85 yards per play, compared with 5.77 in 2018) is one of the Big Ten’s most important storylines. With Indiana quarterback Michael Penix a game-time decision, the Buckeyes’ could tilt the field quickly in this one. Ohio State 31, Indiana 10

Pittsburgh at Penn State

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Penn State by 17½

Prediction: Pat Narduzzi’s defense held Ohio, a strong MAC program, to just 212 yards last week. The Nittany Lions looked shaky on offense last week against Buffalo, showing they don’t have much of a running game, but their defense is stout. This feels like another good under play (53). Penn State 30, Pittsburgh 10

Maryland at Temple

Time, TV: 11 a.m., CBS Sports Network

Vegas line: Maryland by 7

Prediction: No doubt, Maryland has been impressive in averaging an astonishing 71.0 points in the first two weeks. But coming off an emotional win against Syracuse and with the Big Ten opener against Penn State on deck, this screams trap game and tight game. Maryland 31, Temple 28

Eastern Michigan at Illinois

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Illinois by 7½

Prediction: Eastern Michigan’s season-opening win against Coastal Carolina looks pretty good, considering Coastal won at Kansas last weekend. Illinois so far hasn’t seemed like a pushover, thanks to an experienced quarterback in Michigan grad transfer Brandon Peters (7 TDs, 1 INT) and an improved defense that’s allowing 3.8 yards per play. Illinois hosts Nebraska next week, but needs to focus on getting halfway to bowl eligibility this week. Illinois 24, Eastern Michigan 17

UNLV at Northwestern

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

Vegas line: Northwestern by 18½

Prediction: With T.J. Green out for the season, it’s the Hunter Johnson show now for Northwestern. The five-star quarterback should be helped by an extra week of preparation after a rough outing against Stanford. This looks like another slow-starting year for the ‘Cats. They needs this one, with a brutal five-game stretch ahead (Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Ohio State, Iowa). Northwestern 21, UNLV 3

Georgia Southern at Minnesota

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

Vegas line: Minnesota by 15½

Prediction: This might be my favorite play of the week. The Gophers are coming off a gritty double-overtime win at Fresno State, but they still have a perception of underachieving after also struggling against FCS South Dakota State. Minnesota should be energized to be 2-0 at this point and, with a strong array of playmakers, should be able to name the score against a Georgia Southern team that lost by 50-plus to LSU and barely scraped past Maine. Minnesota 42, Georgia Southern 10

Arizona State at Michigan State

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox

Vegas line: Michigan State by 14

Prediction: Arizona State freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels will be in over his head against one of the best defenses in college football. The Spartans’ offense seems to be mercurial to date; Elijah Collins' 192-yard rushing game against Western Michigan was encouraging. This is also a revenge spot for Mark Dantonio. Michigan State 31, Arizona State 10

TCU at Purdue

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

Vegas line: TCU by 2½

Prediction: This week’s news that Purdue’s Markus Bailey is lost for the season would be akin to a scenario of Iowa losing Josey Jewell in 2017 — a heart-and-soul middle linebacker on the shelf. Meltdown aside at Nevada, Purdue has looked pretty good in seven out of eight quarters this season. The Horned Frogs are always tough on defense under Gary Patterson, setting up a fascinating matchup. Purdue 28, TCU 24

Northern Illinois at Nebraska

Time, TV: 7 p.m., BTN

Vegas line: Nebraska by 14

Prediction: If I could take Nebraska games out of my weekly picks, I’d be a 60% winner. The Cornhuskers are a mind-boggling team, with last week’s meltdown in Boulder the latest chapter. Northern Illinois is under a first-year coach in Thomas Hammock, but looks like it’s playing the usual tough brand of Huskies football. California transfer Ross Bowers gives them a capable quarterback, and NIU hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 straight games. If Adrian Martinez is on, Nebraska covers. But I have no idea with Nebraska, honestly. Nebraska 24, Northern Illinois 14

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 3-7-1 against the spread (8-3 straight-up)

Season: 10-13-1 ATS (20-4 SU)

All-time: 112-101-2 ATS (157-58 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.