Leistikow's Week 1 Big Ten picks: Iowa's key to victory at Purdue? Wear out the grass
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The Big Ten Conference football season that never seemed like it would arrive has arrived.
Finally, real games are here.
For Iowa’s traveling football players, Saturday’s 3 ½ hours on Ross-Ade Stadium’s well-manicured grass will seem like a long-awaited getaway after an emotional and soul-searching offseason.
A road trip for Week 1 against a dangerous-but-beatable opponent like Purdue that grabs your attention seems like a good thing for the Hawkeyes. They’ll be happy to think about nothing but football, and their minds should be laser-focused — knowing that the high-octane Boilermakers have a history of keeping them on their toes.
No doubt Iowa coaches have discussed the best way to limit the damage inflicted from Purdue’s pass-heavy attack: Play 60 minutes of keep-away.
Purdue allowed 4.74 yards per opponent carry last season, 95th in FBS. That was a shade better than Nebraska’s dreary 4.82. Why mention Nebraska? Because Iowa rolled up 225 rushing yards at a clip of 7.3 per carry against the Huskers in last year’s regular-season finale, and that was something to build on as it found improved guard play.
A similar formula with a similar cast of characters behind an experienced offensive line is the Hawkeyes' best path to victory against a similarly challenged run defense.
It was notable that during Iowa's media days, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz made a point to mention his “dynamic” trio of running backs. I imagine he intends to use all three, health permitting, on Saturday.
No. 1 back Tyler Goodson had just five carries for six yards against Purdue last season. He might have more touches than that on Saturday's first drive.
No. 2 back Mekhi Sargent, voted one of five team captains, has a strong history against Purdue with three touchdown runs in two games.
No. 3 back Ivory Kelly-Martin found the end zone in 2018 in West Lafayette and is ready for a resurgence after a redshirt year.
And don’t forget the allure of wide-receiver usage in the run game; Ihmir Smith-Marsette is on a two-game streak of TD scampers. Tyrone Tracy Jr. also has wheels and would love to shine in his home-state return.
Lastly, a strong commitment to the run can keep the pressure off quarterback Spencer Petras in his first collegiate start.
Iowa wins if …
The above scenario plays out, and Iowa isn’t afraid to let Petras take downfield shots to his array of wide-receiver options. Ball control is a great starting point for a strategy, but it must be combined with some big-chunk gains. If the Hawkeyes hold serve on offense, Phil Parker’s defense should do enough to hold up its end of the bargain. (With an all-American kicker and elite kick returner, it's safe to assume the Hawkeyes will have a special-teams edge in most or all games this season.)
Purdue wins if …
It can overcome the surprising news that 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster Rondale Moore would miss the game. David Bell is still a big pass-game worry for Iowa, and Purdue under Jeff Brohm has historically unleashed lesser-known receiving threats to beat the Hawkeyes over the top.
IOWA AT PURDUE
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network
Vegas says: Iowa by 3
Prediction: Iowa 34, Purdue 26 ... but I like the over play (53) more than the spread.
Other Week 1 Big Ten picks (times CT)
Friday’s game: Illinois at Wisconsin
Time, TV: 7 p.m., BTN
Vegas says: Wisconsin by 20
Leistikow says: I love that the Big Ten made this the season opener; a rematch of last year’s Illinois stunner against the Badgers. Graham Mertz gets his first start for Wisconsin, with Jack Coan out after foot surgery. While I think Mertz will be fine long-term, Lovie Smith’s defense knows how to attack and could force him into fateful mistakes. The Illini are also sneaky-decent on offense behind sixth-year QB Brandon Peters.
Prediction: Wisconsin 34, Illinois 24
Rutgers at Michigan State
Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN
Vegas says: Michigan State by 13 ½
Leistikow says: One of the league’s two new coaches will start 1-0, and Greg Schiano’s rebuild is going to take a lot longer than Mel Tucker’s. A name to watch for Michigan State (Iowa’s Week 3 opponent) this season is Jayden Reed, a speedy wide receiver who transferred in from Western Michigan.
Prediction: Michigan State 27, Rutgers 8
Nebraska at Ohio State
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas says: Ohio State by 26
Leistikow says: While last year’s Ohio State dismantling of Nebraska still feels fresh, my mind flashes to 2018, when the Adrian Martinez-led Cornhuskers nearly pulled the upset in Columbus. Yes, I’ve got Justin Fields and the Buckeyes churning to a Big Ten title but that doesn’t mean every game will be easy. and I don't think their defense is elite. Martinez will be closer to his 2018 self and Scott Frost will be ready for his first game since he was blown a kiss by Iowa kicker Keith Duncan.
Prediction: Ohio State 45, Nebraska 31
Penn State at Indiana
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Vegas says: Penn State by 6
Leistikow says: The Nittany Lions have endured some major personnel losses, with linebacker Micah Parsons opting out; and now running back Journey Brown is out indefinitely with a medical condition. Still, James Franklin’s team is filled with talent. And while Indiana has an exciting quarterback in Michael Penix Jr., it might be getting a little too much dark-horse love. Penn State thinks it can win the Big Ten East, and with Ohio State on deck has no time for a flat start.
Prediction: Penn State 31, Indiana 21
Michigan at Minnesota
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., ABC
Vegas says: Michigan by 3
Leistikow says: This is going to be a fun one, with two of the league’s most polarizing coaches squaring off. P.J. Fleck’s Gophers are out to prove they’re for real after finishing No. 10 nationally a year ago, and they should have a made-for-primetime offense. Michigan’s Joe Milton might be a star in the making, but give the QB edge to Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan. Iowa fans could use some help here from Jim Harbaugh, with a tight West Division race expected ahead.
Prediction: Minnesota 30, Michigan 27
Maryland at Northwestern
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., BTN
Vegas says: Northwestern by 11
Leistikow says: The closer we get to the season, the more I get the feeling that Pat Fitzgerald’s team is poised for a better year than most think. ESPN’s FPI gives the Wildcats the second-best odds to win the Big Ten West, even though they were 3-9 a year ago. Efficient quarterback Peyton Ramsey and a Paddy Fisher-led defense will control the clock in what could be Taulia Tagovailoa’s first Maryland start.
Prediction: Northwestern 24, Maryland 14
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.