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Leistikow's Week 3 Big Ten picks: Hawkeyes aim to contain Spartans' big plays, Rocky Lombardi

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Phil Parker's disdain for giving up big plays is so intense that he makes it a daily talking point with his Iowa football players.

The Hawkeye defensive coordinator’s philosophy is to force the opponent to be patient on its quest for the end zone. He’s betting that over the course of 12 to 15 plays — if the drive lasts that long — that his zone coverages, occasional blitzes and physical style can create a key mistake. And if not, well, at least the Hawkeyes made you earn your way down the field.

The numbers show that the philosophy works. Last year, Iowa's 35 plays allowed of 20-plus yards ranked No. 1 in the FBS. As a result, Iowa owned the country's fifth-best scoring defense.

Through two games in 2020, Parker’s defense has been good at avoiding big plays. Just one opponent snap out of 155 has beaten Iowa for 30-plus yards (a hurdling 33-yard run by Purdue’s Zander Horvath). The longest pass against Iowa (in 68 attempts) has gone for 21 yards.

By comparison, Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi averaged 19 yards on his 17 completions in Saturday's 27-24 upset at Michigan. 

Rocky Lombardi (12), a West Des Moines Valley alum, will lead Michigan State into Kinnick Stadium on Saturday and won't be afraid to air it out.

That go-for-broke Spartans approach makes Saturday’s 11 a.m. matchup at Iowa fascinating. Against the Wolverines, Lombardi attempted 13 downfield shots and connected on four of them — all to freshman Ricky White, for distances of 50, 41, 31 and 30 yards. And White isn't even considered the Spartans’ top wideout; Western Michigan transfer Jayden Reed had 11 catches for 128 yards in the season-opening loss to Rutgers; and sophomore Jalen Nailor is averaging 75.5 receiving yards a game, too. All three receivers have a catch of at least 50 yards.

Now the Spartans come into Kinnick Stadium with momentum and a red-hot quarterback with back-to-back 300-yard passing games and plenty of motivation.

"This is a real homecoming for me,” said Lombardi, a redshirt junior who prepped at West Des Moines Valley. “I’ve had this game circled since I committed here my junior year of high school.”

Michigan State has the most plays of 30-plus yards (seven) of any Big Ten team in this young season.

It’s big-play strength against no-big-plays strength.

The battle starts up front.

“He’s good with his deep balls,” Iowa defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said of Lombardi. “So we’ve got to get a lot of pressures.”

The battle finishes with the secondary, an annual strength for the Hawkeyes. Their 56 interceptions since the start of the 2017 season rank fourth nationally, and that includes three this season.

Turnovers could help push Iowa into the win column for the first time this season. Michigan State committed seven of them against Rutgers, but cleaned things up with turnover-free ball at Michigan.

Maybe the Hawkeyes can even give their inconsistent offense a boost Saturday with a defensive touchdown.

“I feel like we have the chance to force turnovers,” defensive back Dane Belton said, “whether that be intercepting the ball or punching the ball when (they’re) holding it loose.”

While much of the focus on Iowa’s program the past week has been on a sputtering offense. This is a week that the defense can make or break Iowa’s chances.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker's platform? Staunchly opposed to big plays.

Iowa wins if …

Like last week, I’m going to focus on three keys to an Iowa victory. Last week, they only accomplished one of the three.

No. 1: Make your own big plays. Iowa's one play of 30-plus yards this season ranks last in the Big Ten. Brandon Smith is averaging just 8.8 yards per reception. He is ready for a big game. 

No. 2: Run the football at least 35 times. And give Tyler Goodson at least 20 of those carries. He's plenty ready for them.

No. 3: Stiffen up in the red zone. Of eight opponent trips inside Iowa's 20, the Hawkeyes have allowed six touchdowns — one of the worst rates in FBS (tied for 88th out of 102). Parker's defense need to force Michigan State to score three at a time, not seven.

Michigan State wins if …

The Spartans get the run game going. They're averaging just 2.3 yards a carry, and Parker (a Michigan State alum) will want to keep it that way. Iowa typically feasts on one-dimensional teams. If Lombardi has a running game to set up the pass, the Hawkeyes will be on the fast track to 0-3.

MICHIGAN STATE AT IOWA

Time, TV: 11 a.m. CST, ESPN

Vegas says: Iowa by 7

Prediction: Iowa 27, Michigan State 23 ... The Hawkeye offense is held to 20 points for the third straight game, but the defense comes through with seven.

Saturday’s other Big Ten games (times CST)

Note: The Wisconsin-Purdue game was canceled due to a continued COVID-19 outbreak in the Badgers' program. 

No. 25 Michigan (1-1) at No. 13 Indiana (2-0)

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

Vegas says: Michigan by 3

Leistikow says: The Wolverines crashed last week against rival Michigan State, which put forth an almost-perfect game to pull the upset. Indiana’s box scores have been less than impressive despite the 2-0 start. Michigan needs to win every game to have a shot at taking down Ohio State for the Big Ten East title.

Prediction: Michigan 27, Indiana 20

Nebraska (0-1) at Northwestern (2-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas says: Northwestern by 3½

Leistikow says: After a week off from the Wisconsin game, the Cornhuskers will be eager to get back on the field after being shellacked by Ohio State, 52-17. This line doesn’t add up, given Northwestern’s impressive defense, but Nebraska averaged nearly seven yards per play in the Horseshoe.

Prediction: Nebraska 31, Northwestern 28

Minnesota (0-2) at Illinois (0-2)

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

Vegas says: Minnesota by 7

Leistikow says: After being humbled in a shootout at Maryland that exposed their weak defense, the Gophers should have plenty of motivation against an Illinois roster gutted by key COVID-19 absences. If the Illini can cut down on their turnovers (four in a 31-24 loss to Purdue), they can hang.

Prediction: Minnesota 35, Illinois 30

Maryland (1-1) at Penn State (0-2)

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

Vegas says: Penn State by 25

Leistikow says: After how impressive Maryland QB Taulia Tagovailoa was last week, the huge betting line seems hard to believe against the winless Nittany Lions, who rushed for just 44 yards against Ohio State. But maybe that’s why taking Penn State could be a sharp play. James Franklin has never been one to let off the gas.

Prediction: Penn State 45, Maryland 14

Rutgers (1-1) at No. 3 Ohio State (2-0)

Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Vegas says: Ohio State by 38

Leistikow says: Would you believe that Rutgers ranks fifth in the country in rushing defense? That’s a credit to new coach Greg Schiano … and a small sample size. The Scarlet Knights have been susceptible through the air, and Justin Fields (48-for-55, 594 yards, six touchdowns passing) should have a field day.

Prediction: Ohio State 56, Rutgers 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.