Leistikow's Week 11 Big Ten picks: Iowa's best offensive strategy to upset Wisconsin

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — We can talk all day about how Iowa’s defense needs to stop Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin rushing attack in Saturday’s 3 p.m. Big Ten West elimination game at Camp Randall Stadium.

But for the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes to emerge with a rare triumph against their 16th-ranked rivals to the northeast, this one’s about their offense.

Iowa cannot gain 66 total yards, as it did two years ago in Madison, and expect to be competitive.

Certainly, Wisconsin native Nate Stanley needs to come through in his 35th consecutive start as Iowa’s quarterback.

But so does offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and this Hawkeye running game.

Nobody had a great day against Wisconsin two years ago in Madison, and that includes offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. The Hawkeyes need to do a better job of sticking with the run, even if it's not effective, to keep things competitive with the Badgers.

One of the biggest statistics to watch Saturday will be Iowa’s rushing attempts.

Not yards, necessarily. Attempts.

Two years ago, Ferentz only called 20 running plays in Madison (three of which were run-out-the-clock call with the game out of reach). Iowa scored zero offensive points in a 38-14 loss.

A lack of commitment to the run game is a certain recipe for another loss to Wisconsin.

Of the five visitors to Camp Randall Stadium this season, four have gotten blown out. Those four averaged just 22.3 rushing attempts — including an uncharacteristic 19 by Michigan and 21 by Michigan State.

The only team that wasn’t routed? Northwestern, which stuck to the run game to keep the game competitive. The Wildcats rushed 41 times to gain 97 yards and lost, 24-15.

More validity to the rushing-attempts theory can be found in Wisconsin's past two games, both losses. In setbacks at Illinois and Ohio State, the Badgers were doing a good job against the run for a while. But Illinois (35 rushes, 141 yards) and Ohio State (50 rushes, 264 yards) stuck with the run game … and eventually found cracks in that Wisconsin run defense.

“They definitely stayed the course,” explained Iowa running back Toren Young, who will look to shine in his hometown of Madison. "Not all of their runs were explosive or 4- or 5-yard gains. You look at the film, there was some plays where they were getting tackled in the backfield.

“You’ve got to keep chipping away, chipping away … just stay the course until you get one of those (big-gainers).”

Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) is a nine-point underdog against Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) in this Fox-televised showdown. That’s a reflection of Wisconsin’s ability to jump out to big, early leads — which can suffocate opponents’ plans to commit to the running game. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz brought up that topic this week, saying his team must be sharp from the get-go. It cannot afford to fall behind 10-0 or 14-0 in the first quarter.

“They've got a good front, no question about that,” Ferentz said, “but they do a really good job of getting on top of people, and that happened to us last time we were up there (in 2017).

“You can only be so patient with the run game when you're losing by a significant amount of points.”

Wisconsin has won six of the last seven meetings against Iowa.

That lone Hawkeye win? A 10-6 battle of ball control in 2015.

Four Wisconsin turnovers helped. But perhaps the biggest reason Iowa emerged from that early-October Saturday was its 40 rushing attempts for 144 yards. Jordan Canzeri lugged the ball 26 times for 125 yards in that game, helping to overcome a 9-for-21 passing day from C.J. Beathard.

If Iowa can find some effectiveness in the run game and limit mistakes, it’ll have a chance to make the West Division a two-team race with next week’s opponent, Minnesota. If it doesn’t, it’ll be a two-team race between the Gophers and Badgers.

Prediction: Wisconsin 20, Iowa 13

Speaking of Minnesota, that’s where we begin our look at the rest of Saturday’s Big Ten games.

No. 5 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at No. 13 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas line: Penn State by 6½

Prediction: There's fascinating drama in Minneapolis. Iowa fans need to root for Penn State; a Gophers loss is key for the Hawkeyes' Big Ten West prospects. How will Minnesota handle its first big-stage moment ... on the week that P.J. Fleck signed a huge contract extension? The Gophers have assembled a really solid season portfolio to date, but they have not faced a defense even close to the likes of Penn State. Lost in Minnesota's impressive offense is a decent defense that leads the Big Ten with 11 interceptions and allowed 10.3 points per game in October. Penn State is the better team, but the Gophers just seem to have some magic going. Four quarters might not settle this. Penn State 27, Minnesota 24 (OT)

Purdue (3-6, 2-4) at Northwestern (1-7, 0-6)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas line: Northwestern by 2

Prediction: Two disappointing Big Ten West teams, both with quarterbacks named Aidan. For Northwestern, whether it’s Aidan Smith or Hunter Johnson under center doesn’t seem to matter; the offense can’t move. For Purdue, walk-on Aidan O’Connell will get his first start after rallying the Boilermakers past Nebraska. I thought he looked poised and ready. And he’s coached by Jeff Brohm. And they have David Bell. Good enough for me. Purdue 21, Northwestern 13

Maryland (3-6, 1-5) at No. 4 Ohio State (8-0, 5-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 43½

Prediction: The suspension of Ohio State defensive end Chase Young (as the NCAA looks into him possibly accepting an improper benefit) won’t matter to the outcome this week or next against Rutgers. But the Buckeyes’ amazing start to the Ryan Day era has hit its first real hiccup. They certainly need Young back for Penn State and Michigan ... and beyond. Remember, Maryland pushed the Buckeyes to a thrilling 52-51 game a season ago. What a difference a year makes. Ohio State 49, Maryland 10

Illinois (5-4, 3-3) at Michigan State (4-4, 2-3)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Michigan State by 14½

Prediction: This line sure looks fishy. Illinois has been playing solid football of late for Lovie Smith, and Michigan State has looked like a team that’s falling apart under Mark Dantonio. The Spartans, who have sprung a defensive leak, being heavy favorites makes little sense. Take the under (46) instead. Michigan State 26, Illinois 14

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 3-1 against the spread (4-0 straight-up)

Season: 37-40-1 ATS (60-18 SU)

All-time: 139-128-2 ATS (197-72 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.