Leistikow: Game-by-game predictions for the 2020 Iowa Hawkeyes football season

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Predictions are supposed to be fun and not taken too seriously. But the way I view them, they should also be informative about the matchup history and outlook.

So let's have some fun and buzz through Iowa's eight-game, Big Ten Conference-only regular season schedule that begins Oct. 24 at Purdue (2:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network).

Those that read my Big Ten predictions know I have the Hawkeyes going 6-2 this season, but how do they get there?

With an offense that averages 30 points a game and a lot of narrow wins.

More:10 questions that will define Iowa's 2020 football season

Oct. 24: at Purdue, 2:30 p.m. CT

Rondale Moore’s best receiving total in a game is 220 yards. Why mention that? Because in the three Jeff Brohm-Kirk Ferentz meetings, a Boilermaker receiver has set a career-best total that he never surpassed again: Anthony Mahoungou (135 yards) in 2017; Terry Wright (146 yards) in 2018; and David Bell (197 yards) in 2019. Perhaps it’s advantage Iowa in the opener, because Brohm hasn't had a chance to see the 2020 Hawkeye defense on film to identify a weak spot.

What Chad says: It’ll be an Iowa receiver who steals the show. Brandon Smith was having his best game as a Hawkeye against the Boilermakers a year ago (nine catches, 106 yards) before suffering a high-ankle sprain that kept him out until the Holiday Bowl. Smith starts his senior year with a bang, going for two touchdowns, and so does Spencer Petras in an efficient first game as Iowa’s starting quarterback. Tyler Goodson also tops 100 yards after gaining six (on five carries) last year vs. Purdue.

Score: Iowa 41, Purdue 33

Oct. 31: vs. Northwestern, time TBA

New Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey is a 66.8% career passer, a classic dink-and-dunker that Pat Fitzgerald dispatches to frustrate the Hawkeyes. The last time the Wildcats were in Kinnick, they grinded Iowa down for a 14-10 win that clinched the Big Ten West.

What Chad says: Iowa needs to lengthen the game instead of shorten it. The Hawkeyes don't want to get into a slugfest; they have better personnel and can afford to push the pace offensively while taking some chances on defense. Look for offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz to pull out a trick play or two. Ihmir Smith-Marsette throws one touchdown pass and catches another as Iowa starts 2-0 in Big Ten play for the first time since 2015. (You know what happened that year.)

Score: Iowa 27, Northwestern 21

Tyrone Tracy Jr. had a big-play day at Northwestern last season.

Nov. 7: vs. Michigan State, time TBA

The Spartans enter the Mel Tucker era with many questions, and there’s a good chance they don’t have answers by Week 3. Scoring is kind of important in football, and Iowa hasn't done that against the Spartans lately. Its point totals are 14, 13 and 10 in the last three meetings — all losses. Fortunately, Michigan State’s defense is rebuilding.

What Chad says: Goodson caught 24 passes as a true freshman, but none went for touchdowns. That changes in this one. The Hawkeyes are also long overdue to run a fake field goal (LeVar Woods was curiously quiet in 2019), and that drought ends as well, with Keith Duncan throwing a TD pass to … an offensive lineman (put me down for Justin Britt). Book it.

Score: Iowa 28, Michigan State 19

Nov. 13: at Minnesota, 6 p.m. CT

It’s the Hawkeyes vs Gophers under the Friday night lights, just like was originally scheduled. Minnesota should be loaded on offense and loaded for bear against the Hawkeyes, who have dominated this series since 2015. It’s possible both teams are 3-0 coming into this one, setting up a gigantic West Division clash. Mid-November, after-dark weather in Minneapolis will be a wild card.

What Chad says: For the first time this season, Iowa digs itself a big hole as Rashod Bateman (13 catches, 153 yards in two meetings vs. the Hawkeyes) is too much to handle. Petras logs his first 300-yard passing game as a Hawkeye in a comeback effort that falls short. Afterward, P.J. Fleck happily helps hoist Floyd of Rosedale for the first time.

Score: Minnesota 35, Iowa 31

Rashod Bateman-led Minnesota will be one of three outstanding passing teams that Iowa faces in the first five weeks.

Nov. 21: at Penn State, time TBA

Iowa is 0-4 against its East Division crossover partner through 2021, the last three losses coming in agonizing fashion. Penn State won on the final play in 2017, and Iowa outgained the Nittany Lions in each of the last two one-score losses. These are two well-matched teams.

What Chad says: The dual-threat aspect of Penn State QB Sean Clifford could be a problem for still-acclimating middle linebacker Jack Campbell. I’m also predicting this to be the first week that the Big Ten allows 20% capacity for home games, which adds to Iowa’s degree of difficulty. Petras leaves the game after getting sacked for a Penn State safety; Alex Padilla plays well in relief but it’s not enough. Ankeny native Jake Pinegar boots three field goals for the Nittany Lions.

Score: Penn State 25, Iowa 20

Nov. 27: vs. Nebraska, time TBA

It’ll be interesting to see how the Cornhuskers are holding up after a four-game gauntlet (at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin, at Northwestern, vs. Penn State) to open the season. No opponent over the last two years has been as accommodating to Iowa’s rushing game than Nebraska (225 yards and 7.3 per carry in 2018; 266 yards and 5.9 per carry in 2019), yet each of those matchups required a last-second field goal for the Hawkeyes to win.

What Chad says: Whether it’s Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey pulling the trigger, I think Nebraska’s offense will be tough to contain. That means the Hawkeyes need to be prepared for another high-scoring affair. Nico Ragaini had a spectacular catch overturned a year ago in Lincoln, but he gets his shining moment this time with a clutch fourth-quarter touchdown as Iowa wins its sixth straight vs. the Huskers.

Score: Iowa 42, Nebraska 31

Nico Ragaini led Iowa in catches as a redshirt freshman, with 46. This wasn't one of them.

Dec. 5: at Illinois, time TBA

This is a stat I mentioned last month but bears repeating: A Lovie Smith-coached Illini team has yet to score one point in Memorial Stadium against Iowa (having lost 28-0 in 2016 and 63-0 in 2018). On paper, this should be Illinois’ best team in five years under Smith.

What Chad says: Tight-end play was a big factor in the rout two years ago, and it is again this time as Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer each haul in touchdown passes. Duncan knocks three field goals through gusting winds to embolden his Lou Groza Award campaign. Phil Parker’s defense plays one of its best games of the year to lift a sluggish offense.

Score: Iowa 30, Illinois 17

Dec. 12: vs. Wisconsin, time TBA

Graham Mertz or Jack Coan? Wisconsin’s quarterback situation will sort itself out by mid-December. You’d better believe the frustration of four straight losses to the Badgers is exponentially worse in Iowa City, knowing that in 2018 Iowa led in the final minute and in 2019 lost on a failed two-point conversion.

What Chad says: Earlier on an unseasonably warm day, Nebraska will have upended Minnesota to set up a winter-take-all West Division showdown at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa’s bend-don’t-break defense keeps the game close. Down by nine in the fourth quarter, Petras connects with Tyrone Tracy Jr. for a big touchdown then leads one final, desperation drive. And with one sweep of the leg, followed by a blown kiss, Duncan walks it off with his first career 50-yard field goal to send Iowa to Indianapolis for the first time since 2015.

Score: Iowa 24, Wisconsin 23

Even though Iowa loses the following week, 38-17, in the Big Ten Championship Game to Ohio State, the 2020 season will be viewed as a successful one — the year it powered through the coronavirus and (barely but valiantly) got over the Wisconsin hump.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.