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Leistikow's Week 4 Big Ten picks: Iowa needs to make Minnesota one-dimensional

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MINNEAPOLIS — The 4.2 yards per play allowed through three games by Iowa’s defense ranks No. 1 nationally among Power Five programs. Yet the over/under of 58 points set by oddsmakers for Friday night’s matchup at Minnesota ties the second-highest total for an Iowa game in the past decade, according to Covers.com.

That should tell you a little something about the offense and defense that the Gophers are bringing to TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota has allowed 8.25 yards per play during its 1-2 start, more than a full yard worse than any Power Five team that’s played at least three games (LSU, 7.19). That should offer opportunities for the Hawkeyes’ offense to build on a proficient 49-7 win against Michigan State.

However, for Iowa to hoist the Floyd of Rosedale trophy for the sixth straight year, it’ll have to pick its poison defensively. Gear up to stop running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who has rushed for a national-best 190.3 rushing yards per game and 10 touchdowns already? Or zero in on the man who wears No. 0 — projected first-round NFL Draft pick Rashod Bateman, a fantastic wide receiver who has 24 of Minnesota’s 45 pass receptions?

The answer is both.

Minnesota's Big Three on offense, from left: receiver Rashod Bateman, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and third-year starting quarterback Tanner Morgan.

“They make a point of emphasis to get the run game established, so they can kind of open up some of those RPO (run-pass option) passes,” Iowa free safety Jack Koerner explained. “(They) really suck the defense down towards the line and throw those … slant passes behind the (line)backers and safeties.”

The key to making both ends of the defense work is stout play by the Hawkeyes’ front four, which is led by explosive tackle Daviyon Nixon (Big Ten-high six tackles for loss). Watch closely in the first quarter of Friday’s game: If Iowa’s defensive line is getting a consistent push against a veteran Minnesota offensive line, it’ll be a good sign that the Hawkeyes are on their way to improving to 2-2.

If not? The Gophers could make Iowa's defense look pedestrian. If  they get that run game unleashed with Ibrahim, they'll force-feed Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and others with crisp over-the-middle passes. The Hawkeyes can’t afford to be burned by another elite receiver, as Purdue's David Bell did to them in the opener (13 catches, 121 yards, three touchdowns).

Linebacker Nick Niemann said a big factor in stopping Bateman will be whether Iowa knows what plays are coming. That could be a challenge on a short week of preparation. Plus, Iowa will be rotating middle linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell on Friday — a trial by fire for sophomores amid low-30s temperatures.

“It’s just about whether or not you have guys in the right position in those passing lanes and if you're contesting the receivers when they’re trying to catch the ball,” Niemann said. “Obviously, that’s really critical this week, knowing what they like to do. So, it's just guys playing well in zone coverage or man coverage or whatever we're doing.”

Iowa wins if …

Here are three keys to a Hawkeye victory.

No. 1: Make it 11 in a row. Iowa has an interception in 10 consecutive games. Riley Moss, who had a pick-six against Michigan State, has three career interceptions against Minnesota. The Hawkeyes have a strong secondary, but their front six or seven need to get their hands in passing lanes.

No. 2: Start fast. The Hawkeyes scored touchdowns on their first three drives against Minnesota a year ago, which buoyed a 23-19 win. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has been far better in the first half than the second; playing from behind has not been his strength.

No. 3: Hold Ibrahim to 86 or fewer yards. Why 86? Because during Iowa’s five-game winning streak in this rivalry, no Gophers running back has topped 86. That’ll be a tall challenge against the nation's leading rusher, but accomplishing key No. 2 would help the cause.

Iowa cornerback Riley Moss returns an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter against Michigan State at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

Minnesota wins if …

P.J. Fleck can channel positive emotions from his team for 60 minutes. Iowa has the clearly superior defense and special teams, while Minnesota has the better offense. In 2011, Minnesota won despite allowing 252 rushing yards to Marcus Coker. Strange things can happen in this rivalry.

IOWA AT MINNESOTA

Time, TV: 6 p.m. CT Friday, Fox Sports 1

Vegas says: Iowa by 3½

Prediction: Iowa 30, Minnesota 23 ... Ihmir Smith-Marsette scores a touchdown for the third straight year vs. the Gophers and flirts with 200 all-purpose yards.

Saturday’s Big Ten games (times CT)

Note: No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) vs. Maryland (2-1) was canceled Wednesday due to increasing COVID-19 numbers for the Terrapins. 

No. 10 Indiana (3-0) at Michigan State (1-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas says: Indiana by 7½

Leistikow says: The Hoosiers are having a magical start to their season. Who would have predicted wins against Penn State and Michigan? But their metrics are questionable, yielding 5.28 yards per play while gaining just 4.71. Michigan State has enough talent on the edges and motivation to bounce back and keep this close.

Prediction: Indiana 27, Michigan State 24

Illinois (0-3) at Rutgers (1-2)

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

Vegas says: Rutgers by 6½

Leistikow says: This might be Illinois’ most winnable game left on the schedule, and Lovie Smith’s team should get several players back from COVID-19 quarantine that missed the losses to Purdue and Minnesota. Rutgers has been plucky under first-year coach Greg Schiano, but the offense isn't good.

Prediction: Illinois 24, Rutgers 21

Penn State (0-3) at Nebraska (0-2)

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

Vegas says: Penn State by 3½  

Leistikow says: Nebraska is toying with a quarterback change from Adrian Martinez to Luke McCaffrey. The Huskers are good at gaining yards but not at scoring or preventing points. It’ll be interesting to see what version of Penn State shows up in Lincoln, considering Iowa travels to Happy Valley next week.

Prediction: Penn State 33, Nebraska 24

No. 14 Wisconsin (1-0) at Michigan (1-2)

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

Vegas says: Wisconsin by 4½

Leistikow says: Big Ten West hopefuls outside of Madison are big Jim Harbaugh fans this week. Can the embattled Wolverines coach bring out his team’s best effort after back-to-back unexpected losses to Michigan State and Indiana? Graham Mertz’s mandatory 21 days off expire Friday after his COVID-19 diagnosis, so the Wisconsin quarterback should be able to play.

Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Michigan 17

No. 23 Northwestern (3-0) at Purdue (2-0)

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

Vegas says: Northwestern by 3

Leistikow says: If Rondale Moore can make his season debut for the Boilermakers, that’d be a game-changer. If Moore can’t go, Northwestern’s formula of chewing clock and leaning on its defense should prevail.

Prediction: Northwestern 21, Purdue 17

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.