Leistikow's Week 14 Big Ten picks: Iowa's 10-win goal hinges on beating Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

LINCOLN, Neb. — Even with the sting of the Nov. 9 loss at Wisconsin still fresh, Iowa players determined that a new team benchmark needed to be established to salvage the 2019 season.

Ten wins.

“That’s the new team goal,” quarterback Nate Stanley said this week. “That has been (the goal) since we knew we couldn’t win the Big Ten championship. … Everybody’s been doing a good job buying into that.”

The chance to become Kirk Ferentz’s sixth 10-win team remains in play for the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes, who have responded nicely after seeing their stated goal — a conference title — fizzle with a two-point loss in Madison.

Two down, thanks to gritty back-to-back home wins against previously unbeaten Minnesota and resurgent Illinois.

And two to go, including Friday's 1:30 p.m. regular-season finale at Nebraska (5-6) and a bowl game to be determined, probably against a mid-range Pacific-12 Conference opponent.

The Hawkeyes' pass rush, behind defensive end A.J. Epenesa, has racked up 16 sacks in their last four games. A big-play defense may be required Friday in Lincoln.

Thinking about a 4-0 finish is about the last thing Ferentz would suggest to players, given his tunnel-vision, one-game-at-a-time approach. But the goal seems to have galvanized a locker room that has seen a 6-3 record become 8-3, rather than spiral into 6-5.

"It's nice to have those goals or visions and all that kind of stuff, but really, what it gets down to is trying to get ready for this game," Ferentz said Tuesday, "which means we need to utilize every minute — those kind of fantasy goals: Think about those during your off time."

The players, to their credit, have been capable of balancing both messages.

"Getting that ninth win (is) something we’ve been preaching all week: 9-3 is way better than 8-4,” junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette said. “If we get to nine wins, that’s one step closer to 10 wins. And that’s something special.”

Nailed it.

So … about getting that ninth win.

It won’t be easy. Nebraska is brimming with confidence after a 54-7 domination at Maryland and brings a much-better offense than Iowa’s into this game. The Cornhuskers have gained at least 469 yards in a game six times this season, something the Hawkeyes have only done once (against 4-7 Middle Tennessee State).

Before the season, I picked Iowa to finish 9-3 in the regular season.

And I’ll stick with Iowa finishing 9-3.

Here are five opinions/reasons why:

1. The expected wet conditions should favor Iowa. The Hawkeyes are more reliant on the passing game, sure, but as Nate Stanley pointed out, the balls that come into the game are kept dry. Iowa is less prone to turnovers, having lost the turnover battle just twice in its last 20 games. And if wet weather does indeed favor a good defense, Iowa’s is better.

2. I predict the Hawkeyes' woeful run game actually gets going. Wow, I can already feel the backlash of that unpopular opinion. But even last year, with a struggling run game, Iowa amassed a season-best 266 yards on the ground against Nebraska. Let’s set the bar for “gets going” at 150 rushing yards, something Iowa has accomplished only once (against Rutgers) in Big Ten play. Sophomore Kyler Schott said the offensive-line tempo has been sharp in practice this week and added: “I think we’re going to be good to go.”

3. Iowa’s bend-don’t-break defense formula is working. In conference games, Nebraska has outgained opponents by 222 yards but is 3-5. Iowa has outgained opponents by 203 yards but is 5-3, with three one-score losses. The Hawkeyes seem comfortable giving up yards between the 30s but getting big plays when they need them. The defensive line has come to life, with 16 sacks in their last four games.

4. Iowa’s special teams are way better. That starts with the kicker conversation. Iowa has Lou Groza Award finalist Keith Duncan (27-for-32 field goals). Nebraska has tried (no kidding) six placekickers that have made 11 of 19 field-goal tries with a long of 36 yards. Keep that in mind if this one is close in the fourth quarter.

5. The Cornhuskers aren’t proven finishers. Under Scott Frost, Nebraska is 3-8 in games decided by seven or fewer points. Iowa, meanwhile, is 8-0 as a favorite this season with four wins by single digits … and is favored by 5½ points Friday (Big Ten Network).

Nothing has come easy for the Hawkeyes this season. And this one probably won’t, either. But the defense will find enough in the tank to hold on again.

Prediction: Iowa 27, Nebraska 22

With the Iowa game in the books Friday, we'll all have a chance to digest two monster Big Ten games Saturday. Let's go.

No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0) at No. 11 Michigan (9-2, 6-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas line: Ohio State by 9

Prediction: Strangely, the team with nothing to play for (Michigan) has everything to play for; and the team with seemingly everything to play for (Ohio State) has little to play for. The Wolverines are playing like the team that many picked to win the Big Ten East Division before the start of the season, having steamrolled their last four opponents by an average margin of 30.5 points a game. Even if the Buckeyes lose, they still should be fine for the College Football Playoff by winning the Big Ten title game — meaning there’s more at stake for them in Indianapolis next week than in Ann Arbor this week. Playing at home, the circumstances might be coming together for Jim Harbaugh to win “The Game” for the first time as a coach. Michigan 29, Ohio State 28

Northwestern (2-9, 0-8) at Illinois (6-5, 4-4)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas line: Illinois by 8½

Prediction: Consider me impressed with the physical edge that the Fighting Illini showed on defense at Kinnick Stadium. Surely, Pat Fitzgerald won’t let his team go from 8-1 in the Big Ten one year to 0-9 the next without a fight. Illinois 20, Northwestern 17

Indiana (7-4, 4-4) at Purdue (4-7, 3-5)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2

Vegas line: Indiana by 6½

Prediction: The Hoosiers can finish off a strong season by pushing around a Purdue defense that yielded 403 rushing yards a week ago at Wisconsin. But Purdue coach Jeff Brohm never makes it easy; he is 2-0 in the battle for the Old Oaken Bucket. Indiana 27, Purdue 24

Maryland (3-8, 1-7) at Michigan State (5-6, 3-5)

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

Vegas line: Michigan State by 22

Prediction: The Spartans got back to the basics with a shutout of Rutgers last week and will clinch either a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl or Quick Lane Bowl by routing Maryland, which must be privately regretting its hire of Mike Locksley. Michigan State 34, Maryland 7

Rutgers (2-9, 0-8) at No. 12 Penn State (9-2, 6-2)

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

Vegas line: Penn State by 40

Prediction: James Franklin has shown no mercy against weaker opponents as Penn State’s head coach, but 40 points might be too much to ask, especially if quarterback Sean Clifford (game-time decision) is out. The Nittany Lions (No. 10 in the College Football Playoff) will head to the New Year’s Six after this, while Rutgers will scurry to find a head coach. Penn State 42, Rutgers 7

No. 14 Wisconsin (9-2, 6-2) at No. 9 Minnesota (10-1, 7-1)

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

Vegas line: Wisconsin by 3

Prediction: The biggest battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe ever? ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be in Minneapolis with the Big Ten West title on the line. Wisconsin has the bigger brand and has an offense that’s averaged 520.3 yards a game since back-to-back losses to Illinois and Ohio State. But the Badgers are also susceptible in the secondary, which is where Minnesota likes to strike. The Gophers have the better quarterback in Tanner Morgan, an underrated defense, the home-field advantage and the confidence that comes from routing the Badgers a year ago in Madison. P.J. Fleck getting to play the underdog card is a bonus that’ll help him row his boat to Indianapolis. Minnesota 31, Wisconsin 27

Leistikow's ledger

Last week: 2-5 against the spread (7-0 straight-up)

Season: 45-50-1 ATS (75-21 SU)

All-time: 147-138-2 ATS (212-75 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.