Leistikow's Week 9 Big Ten picks: The biggest key for No. 19 Iowa to beat Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

EVANSTON, Ill. — As long as the Iowa football team doesn’t commit five turnovers against Northwestern (like it did in 2008), there’s one primary objective starting at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Stuff the run.

Do that effectively, and the 19th-ranked Hawkeyes will win the ESPN2-televised game.

“Eleven hats to the ball,” Iowa defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said this week. “That’s what we want to do. We want to fly around out there.”

The Wildcats’ three-game winning streak against Iowa has centered on an almost-surprising ability to shred the Hawkeyes’ usually stout run defense.

Isaiah Bowser (25) raced 34 yards for a third-quarter touchdown against Iowa that changed the course of the game in a 14-10 Northwestern win at Kinnick Stadium.

The run-game numbers the last three years in this series:

Iowa has rushed 96 times for 232 yards.

Northwestern has rushed 134 times for 529 yards.

In three Wildcat wins decided by a combined 18 points, that 297-yard disparity is staggering.

Last year’s 14-10 Wildcats’ win was especially jarring. Northwestern came into Kinnick Stadium with one of college football's most putrid rushing offenses; Iowa entered with the fifth-best rushing defense.

Yet, a largely unknown freshman named Isaiah Bowser plowed successfully up the middle of the Hawkeye defense, again and again, to the tune of 31 carries for 165 yards. His 34-yard touchdown run that put Northwestern ahead 7-3 in the third quarter still gnaws at Hawkeye safety Geno Stone.

“It wasn’t him. It was more us,” Stone said. “On his touchdown run ... I went inside when I should have stayed outside.”

Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats always have a maddeningly patient plan against Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes. They’re willing to take three, four, five yards at a time in the run game — then use quick throws to keep the defense honest.

Even though Northwestern (1-5, 0-4 Big Ten Conference) has struggled mightily on offense, it surely found recent, friendly reminders on film of how to beat Iowa. Just two weeks ago, Penn State used the Northwestern formula of emptying the box and running into it. The Nittany Lions chewed away clock and real estate (53 rushes, 177 yards) in a 17-12 win at Kinnick Stadium.

The Hawkeyes (5-2, 2-2) cannot afford to play conservatively. That's where Fitzgerald burns them. Bowser (who is back from injury) and Drake Anderson (4.7 yards a carry) will test freshmen middle linebackers Dillon Doyle and Jack Campbell in the run game. Iowa has the eighth-ranked rushing defense in the country (allowing 91.1 yards a game), but that's misleading. It's faced the fourth-fewest carries nationally among FBS teams that have played seven games.

Northwestern will run it. And it knows where the holes are.

“They run a lot of scheme stuff,” Lattimore said. “That can be a challenge, going from a team that runs sideline to sideline and throws it every play (like in last week’s 26-20 win against Purdue, which attempted only 18 rushes). Watching film is our challenge this week, getting after them guys and knowing our fits in the defense.”

Northwestern quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Aidan Smith have terrible numbers — a 46.5% completion rate with two touchdown passes against nine interceptions. Iowa cornerbacks and safeties can afford to play tighter coverage; the Wildcats don't have the pass-game threats to beat them.

So yes, Saturday's is solely about stopping the run for Iowa's defense.

Do that, and happily lug a 6-2 record into the second idle week of the season and the November home stretch.

The Hawkeyes are 10½-point favorites. They’ve got the better offense and better defense. But be prepared to hang on for dear life, as always, against the 'Cats. And be thankful for a win, no matter the margin.

Prediction: Iowa 19, Northwestern 13.

Now for the rest of the Big Ten ...

No. 13 Wisconsin (6-1, 3-1) at No. 4 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 14½

Prediction: First, I’d just like to say I’ve been a fan of Fox’s “Big Noon” concept after being initially skeptical. Second, I’m not a fan that this conflicts with my coverage of Iowa-Northwestern. Anyway, about the game. Only LSU could rival Ohio State as the most impressive team in college football to date. Every week, the spread seems too high … and the Buckeyes cover it. This number, though, seems like an outrageous overreaction to Wisconsin’s face-plant at Illinois. The Badgers will play with a lot of purpose in the Horseshoe. And they still have a great defense — by far the best Ohio State has faced this season — and have stayed within seven points in their past five meetings against the Buckeyes (even though they did lose all five). Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 17

Illinois (3-4, 1-3) at Purdue (2-5, 1-3)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Purdue by 9½

Prediction: The Fighting Illini showed tremendous fight in taking down Wisconsin last week; the physical tone on defense was something that’s been missing in previous years from Lovie Smith’s team. That should bode well on the road, but an Illinois emotional letdown is almost inevitable. Meanwhile, Purdue seems to be finding optimism in the young connection between Jack Plummer and David Bell. Just think what might be possible when Rondale Moore (doubtful this week with a hurt hamstring) comes back. Purdue 35, Illinois 21

Liberty (5-2) at Rutgers (1-6, 0-5)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Liberty by 7

Prediction: There’s a first for everything, including me typing “Liberty football schedule” into Google to learn more about this game that nobody will watch. The Hugh Freeze-coached Flames have won five in a row, including a 59-44 win against Maine, where Kirk Ferentz was once coached. Now you know. Liberty 28, Rutgers 24

No. 6 Penn State (7-0, 4-0) at Michigan State (4-3, 2-2)

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

Vegas line: Penn State by 6½

Prediction: The Nittany Lions made me a believer at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 12, and Michigan State has done very little in the past month to inspire confidence. The Mark Dantonio era is winding down, and James Franklin has the College Football Playoff within reach. This is a tough emotional ask for Penn State, to deliver another big performance after gritty wins against Iowa and Michigan. But Penn State has the better offense, better defense and more at stake. Penn State 28, Michigan State 17

Maryland (3-4, 1-3) at No. 17 Minnesota (7-0, 4-0)

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

Vegas line: Minnesota by 16½

Prediction: Mock the schedule if you wish, but the Golden Gophers have won nine in a row for the first time since 1941-42 and own the nation’s fourth-longest win streak. And they’re looking more impressive every week. Minnesota has racked up 154 points through four conference games, and that total should push 200 this week against a soft Maryland defense. P.J. Fleck will be 8-0 entering an idle week before the Gophers host Penn State (Nov. 9) and visit Iowa (Nov. 16) in defining showdowns. Minnesota 45, Maryland 14

Indiana (5-2, 2-2) at Nebraska (4-3, 2-2)

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

Vegas line: Nebraska by 2½

Prediction: It’s difficult to pick this game without knowing the status of injured Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez. Coach Scott Frost was mum on the topic Thursday. The Cornhuskers are coming off a bye but are also dealing with the distraction of running back Maurice Washington’s absence for violating team rules. You might be surprised to learn that Indiana owns the Big Ten’s second-ranked offense. Nebraska 31, Indiana 28

No. 7 Notre Dame (6-1) at No. 20 Michigan (5-2, 3-2)

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

Vegas line: Notre Dame by 1

Prediction: The Fighting Irish have been more impressive to date, but Michigan showed some fight and began finding offensive playmakers in rallying to battle Penn State to the wire last week in Happy Valley. Their Big Ten East hopes likely dead, the Wolverines should see their best chance to salvage their season by delivering some statement wins like this one. They also have revenge motivation after squandering last year’s opener in South Bend. Michigan 24, Notre Dame 20

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 3-3 against the spread (5-1 straight-up)

Season: 31-34-1 ATS (51-15 SU)

All-time: 133-122-2 ATS (188-69 SU)

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.