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Leistikow's Week 2 Big Ten picks: Already a must-win game for Iowa against Northwestern

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s championship hopes in the Big Ten Conference could be on life support just eight days into its long-awaited football season. That would be the prognosis, anyway, if the 0-1 Hawkeyes lose Saturday’s home matchup against 1-0 Northwestern that oddsmakers project will be decided by less than a field goal.

We all understood the urgency for each game would be heightened in an eight-game, conference-only regular season. But it’s been taken to a new level this week, with the cancellation of Wisconsin’s game at Nebraska due 16 positive COVID-19 tests within the Badgers program as of Thursday night. 

With that news came the realization that later games you’re counting on to help get you back in the Big Ten race might not necessarily happen. Every win is critical for teams that have West Division title hopes, as Iowa legitimately does even after last week’s 24-20 loss at Purdue.

If the Hawkeyes fall to 0-2, they would already be 0-2 in divisional games — and on the wrong side of tiebreakers with Purdue and Northwestern, which have the two friendliest crossover slates among the seven West Division teams. Plus, division favorite Wisconsin will play seven games at most (and more than likely six, considering the team is pausing workouts for seven days — putting next week’s matchup with Purdue in peril).

Let’s pause here to write an important paragraph about Big Ten tiebreakers.

The pandemic-year division-title tiebreaker is mostly based on winning percentage and the loss column, with a minimum of six games required to qualify. So, if there’s a 5-1 Wisconsin (.833) and 6-2 Northwestern (.750), the nod goes to Wisconsin no matter who won the head-to-head meeting. But if it’s 5-1 Wisconsin and 7-1 Northwestern, the tiebreaker would default to whoever won the head-to-head meeting. So, if Wisconsin handed Northwestern its only loss in that scenario, the Badgers would be the West Division champ despite having two fewer wins.

Unpause. Back to the (big) implications of Iowa's game against Northwestern.

If the Hawkeyes lose, they would probably need to win the rest of their games (six, presumably, including against Wisconsin in the Dec. 12 finale) and get some nice strokes of help/luck from other teams to reach the Big Ten title game.

So, now that we’ve outlined how important it is for Iowa to win Saturday ... how does it win? Glad you asked!

Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats have won in their last two trips to Kinnick Stadium, including in 2018 to win the division title (pictured).

Iowa wins if …

I'm going to use this space to outline three keys to victory, one of which I wrote about earlier this week.

No. 1: If Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey attempts more than 30 passes. That'll mean Iowa's rush defense was better than last week against Purdue and forcing the Wildcats to go to the air. Seth Benson needs to be a combination of fire (energy) and ice (calm under the pressure) in his first start at middle linebacker against a Wildcats offense that rushed for 325 yards in a 43-3 win against Maryland.

No. 2: If the Hawkeyes win the third quarter. Iowa needs to break its string of five straight Big Ten games without a third-quarter point. It can't afford second-half sputters like it had last week against Purdue. Throw in some new wrinkles after halftime (how about some tempo on offense or a surprise onsides kick?) to manufacture urgency and energy.

No. 3: If Iowa doesn't lose a fumble. Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher is the nation's active leader in forced fumbles with 10. After three Hawkeyes coughed up the ball last week (Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent lost fumbles; Brandon Smith's was recovered by Sam LaPorta), you can bet the Wildcats will be extra-aggressive in tackling the football. 

Northwestern wins if …

The Hawkeyes try to win a brawl. Iowa would be playing right into Northwestern's hands if it tries to win a battle of field position. The Wildcats' strength is up front on both sides of the ball, and I think it's a significant factor that Northwestern had eight spring practices to Iowa's zero. The Hawkeyes need to win on the edges with their skill-position advantages. If Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a non-factor again, Northwestern has to like its chances.

NORTHWESTERN AT IOWA

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

Vegas says: Iowa by 2½

Prediction: Iowa 22, Northwestern 17 ... behind five Keith Duncan field goals and three turnovers forced by the Hawkeye defense.

Other Week 2 Big Ten picks (times CT)

A quick note of thanks to the observant subscribers who e-mailed me after seeing my Week 1 picks go 0-7 against the spread; I appreciate your reading! Have never had a week like that before, but we've never had a season like this before. Bet I couldn't go 0-7 again if I tried!

Friday’s game: Minnesota (0-1) at Maryland (0-1)

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

Vegas says: Minnesota by 19½

Leistikow says: The biggest eye-opening stat for the Gophers in their opening 49-24 loss to Michigan was their allowance of 9 yards per rushing attempt. After such a manhandling, we’ll see how strong P.J. Fleck’s culture is in Minneapolis. The Minnesota offense, which actually held the ball for 35 minutes against Michigan, should have no trouble overpowering the hapless Terps.  

Prediction: Minnesota 42, Maryland 14

Saturday’s games

Purdue (1-0) at Illinois (0-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas says: Purdue by 7

Leistikow says: Hawkeye fans will have heightened curiosity about this result, to size up good (or bad) the loss to Purdue was last week. The status of Rondale Moore was still in question, but his presence would be a game-changer for the Boilermakers, who welcome Jeff Brohm back to the sidelines. Illinois’ pass defense was terrible in its 45-7 loss to Wisconsin.

Prediction: Purdue 31, Illinois 21

Michigan State (0-1) at No. 14 Michigan (1-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Vegas says: Michigan by 24½

Leistikow says: Michigan State committed SEVEN turnovers against Rutgers and lost by 11. Underneath the sticker shock of that loss was a decent passing day from Valley alum Rocky Lombardi (31 of 43, 391 yards, three touchdowns). And this is a rivalry game … that the Spartans lost, 44-10, a year ago. Michigan looked amazing in its opener but will get Michigan State’s best shot, whatever that is.

Prediction: Michigan 42, Michigan State 24

No. 19 Indiana (1-0) at Rutgers (1-0)

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

Vegas says: Indiana by 11

Leistikow says: The Hoosiers certainly could be ripe for an emotional letdown after beating Penn State, 36-35, despite being outgained by a whopping 488-211 yardage margin. Look for Indiana to try to lean on running back Stevie Scott II to slog through this one.

Prediction: Indiana 31, Rutgers 17

No. 3 Ohio State (1-0) at No. 17 Penn State (0-1)

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

Vegas says: Ohio State by 12

Leistikow says: Whatever stops James Franklin’s got, he’ll undoubtedly pull them out against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions’ Big Ten East hopes are cooked if they lose this one. Ohio State’s defense remains a slight question mark, which leaves the door open to a Penn State cover.

Prediction: Ohio State 35, Penn State 24

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.