Leistikow's Week 7 Big Ten picks: Iowa's 5 keys to an upset of No. 9 Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A striped-out Kinnick Stadium at night, a top-10 visitor, a fighter-jet flyover, alternate uniforms and Penn State-slaying Ricky Stanzi as the honorary captain?

Indeed, the intangibles are in place for the Iowa Hawkeyes to deliver a high-profile, bounce-back message after last weekend’s disappointing 10-3 loss at Michigan.

But the emotions of Saturday’s 6:44 p.m. game against No. 9 Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) can only take the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1) so far. The difference between winning and losing will boil down to crucial matchups and boring details.

Kirk Ferentz is 0-3 against James Franklin, who is 0-11 all-time on the road against AP Top 25 opponents. Something has to give.

Here are five musts for the Hawkeyes to make sure they walk out of Kinnick Stadium with the upset (Penn State is favored by 3 points) and with their Big Ten West title fate still in their control.

No. 1: Stifle Penn State’s typical fast start.

The Nittany Lions are the only FBS team that hasn’t allowed a first-quarter point. They’re outscoring opponents 69-0 in the opening 15 minutes. The fact that the Hawkeyes shut out Michigan for the final 53:33 was moot because of their flat beginning.

Early energy shouldn’t be a problem; the Kinnick crowd "gives you that edge, that you know you’ve got to go out there and do it from the start," receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said.

But being smart is important, too.

Take note: Penn State has yet to start a game on offense this season, having lost the coin toss three times and deferring on the other two. Opponents have managed only 41 yards on 20 plays with an interception on their opening drives.

So, if Iowa wins the toss, defer. Take the wind.

Put your excellent defense on the field and shake up Penn State’s first-quarter formula.

No. 2: Don’t let K.J. Hamler find space.

One of the biggest plays in last year’s 30-24 Penn State win in State College was delivered by Hamler, after Geno Stone’s interception-return touchdown sliced the Nittany Lions’ lead to 27-24 with 10:48 to go. Hamler's ensuing 67-yard kickoff return took Penn State deep into Iowa territory and set up a key field goal.

At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Hamler is Penn State’s version of Purdue’s Rondale Moore; an explosive, shifty slot receiver. He leads Penn State in every receiving category, including a 20.7-yard catch average and four touchdowns. Stone, the Hawkeyes’ junior strong safety from New Castle, Pennsylvania, will have his eyes on No. 1.

"I feel like I’m probably going to match up with him during the game. That’s one of the guys I’m really looking forward to playing against," Stone said. "I’m confident I’ll be able to guard him."

Penn State logs an “explosive play” (a 12-yard run or 15-yard pass or better) on a remarkable 16.5% of its offensive snaps. Limiting Hamler’s impact requires fundamental tackling; don't let a 6-yard pass turn into 60. Stone is excellent in that department. Iowa must force impressive Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, in his first hostile road start, to patiently grind out first downs. That’s not typically how Penn State’s offensive engine runs.

No. 3: Dominate the red zone.

For as good as Iowa’s offense has been inside the opponents' 20-yard line this year (18-for-18 in scoring, with 13 touchdowns), Penn State’s per-trip point total has been better (22-for-23 with 18 touchdowns). If the Hawkeyes can force Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar, an Ankeny Centennial product, to score three points on a couple Penn State red-zone trips, that’ll be a success.

Iowa kept Penn State out of the end zone in in the early stages of the 2017 game (buckling down to yield 19- and 21-yard field goals) and hung around until the final play despite giving up 579 yards. Giving up three points instead of seven is critical to pulling these top-10 upsets.

No. 4: Remember your offensive identity.

As much as Iowa’s offense will be under the white-hot spotlight this week after having more turnovers (four) than rushing yards (one) at Michigan, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz needs to avoid the temptation to do too much.

Penn State leads the nation with 10.4 tackles per loss per game (52 overall, including 25 sacks). Running the football will be a chore against a tremendous front seven, but it’s a necessity. Iowa is still playing with fire by refusing to substitute on defense for star ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston (they played all 60 snaps against Michigan). That lack of depth underscores the importance of a ball-control offense this week — Iowa ranks second nationally in time of possession and, to me, that's their identity — and it’ll take a commitment to the running game and short passing game to produce a winning formula.

No. 5: Be perfect on special teams.

A lesser-discussed sore spot in the Michigan loss was the struggles of punter Michael Sleep-Dalton. He hit one good punt (a 56-yarder) and six bad ones (those half-dozen averaged 35.3 yards) and consistently failed to create poor field position for the Wolverines. It was a Ron Coluzzi punt downed at the 2-yard line that turned the tide of Iowa’s 2016 night-game upset of then-No. 3 Michigan. These things matter, especially on what’s expected to be a windy, chilly evening.

"I don't think it's a trend," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of Sleep-Dalton, who has otherwise been terrific this season. "I think we'll get back and get straightened out."

Keith Duncan (11-for-12 on field goals, 14-for-14 on extra points) needs to keep doing what he’s doing. Nico Ragaini is growing in punt-return confidence and production. And Iowa hasn’t faked a kick this year, by the way. This would be as good a time as any to pull out a special-teams surprise.

Checking off all five of boxes will be a tall task. But the Hawkeyes have proven clutch in raucous home environments as an underdog. And Penn State coach James Franklin is 0-11 all-time on the road against Associated Press Top 25 opponents. Even against a Penn State team that is 10-2 in its last 12 night games, the Hawkeyes will find a way.

Prediction: Iowa 20, Penn State 19

After a 5-2 week against the spread (I did miss the Iowa game; sorry!), let's buzz through the rest of Saturday's Big Ten slate.

No. 16 Michigan (4-1, 2-1) at Illinois (2-3, 0-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Michigan by 23

Prediction: The entire Michigan fan base is relieved about the Iowa win but panicked about the anemic-looking offense. And with a trip to Penn State on deck (and Illinois’ quarterback being Michigan transfer Brandon Peters, whose status is uncertain), the Wolverines might be prone to a Champaign trap. But this should be a major physical mismatch and a chance for Shea Patterson and the offense to have a good day; maybe even run up the score a bit. Michigan 42, Illinois 10

Rutgers (1-4, 0-3) at Indiana (3-2, 0-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Indiana by 27½

Prediction: This seems like an absurd line. And by that, I mean it doesn't seem like the Scarlet Knights can stay within four touchdowns. Rutgers is down to its third quarterback with McLane Carter (retiring for health reasons) and Artur Sitkowski (choosing to redshirt after Chris Ash was fired) out of the picture. Indiana 42, Rutgers 10

Maryland (3-2, 1-1) at Purdue (1-4, 0-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Maryland by 3½

Prediction: The Boilermakers have the worst rushing offense and total defense in the Big Ten, and they won't have quarterback Elijah Sindelar or star receiver Rondale Moore (whose "week-to-week" status puts him in jeopardy of missing next Saturday's game at Iowa). That's a tough recipe, even at home against a team coming off its first Big Ten win since 2017. Maryland 28, Purdue 24

Michigan State (4-2, 2-1) at No. 8 Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0)

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

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 10½

Prediction: I am wondering if Michigan State's defense just isn't very good after allowing 31 points to Indiana and 34 to Ohio State. Then I am remembering that Wisconsin gained just 243 yards against Northwestern (which plays a similar style to Michigan State). Remarkably, this is Wisconsin's fifth straight home game. After this, it won't play at Camp Randall again until Nov. 9 against Iowa. Wisconsin 24, Michigan State 20

Nebraska (4-2, 2-1) at Minnesota (5-0, 2-0)

Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Minnesota by 7½

Prediction: P.J. Fleck's Golden Gophers are fine with running (332 yards against Illinois) or passing (396 yards at Purdue) and keep on winning. The Cornhuskers were mum on the status of quarterback Adrian Martinez, who injured his knee in a 13-10 win against Northwestern. If Minnesota wins, it should sail to 8-0 (at Rutgers, home against Maryland) before facing Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin to finish. Minnesota 31, Nebraska 17

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 5-2 against the spread (6-1 straight-up)

Season: 26-27-1 ATS (42-12 SU)

All-time: 128-115-2 ATS (179-66 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.