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Leistikow's 5 thoughts: West has been Big Ten's better division; Iowa expects Penn State's best shot

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Since the Big Ten Conference split into geographical divisions in 2014, the East champion has gone 6-0 against the West winner in league championship games. Although it remains to be seen if that trend changes Dec. 19 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, there’s little doubt that 2020 has introduced some fightback from the West.

The division that has sometimes been a national punch line in the 14-team conference is doing the punching this year.

West Division leader Northwestern (4-0) opened the season with a 43-3 rout of Maryland, which hasn’t lost since.

Iowa (2-2) woke up from an early slumber to paste Michigan State 49-7 two Saturdays ago.

All Nebraska (1-2) needed to get into the win column was a visit from Penn State, which remains the only winless team in the league.

The offensive line celebrates with Floyd of Rosedale after Iowa's 35-7 win at Minnesota.

And after missing two games because of a COVID-19 outbreak, Wisconsin (2-0) roared back Saturday with a 49-11 pummeling at Michigan, which fell to 1-3.

The West has a 5-3 overall record against the East and should be favored in four of the final six cross-divisional games, starting with Iowa’s 2:30 p.m. Saturday matchup at Penn State. The Hawkeyes are 2½-point favorites to snap a six-game series losing streak against the Nittany Lions.

Will the Hawkeyes be facing a beaten-down group of Nittany Lions on Saturday, or a fed-up one?

"Their record is almost irrelevant," Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said Tuesday. "They're a really talented team, and they've really been close in a lot of these games. I think that the worst thing we could do would be to look at their record and take these guys lightly."

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said turning on Penn State's film is all the evidence his players need to be focused Saturday.

"Unless they are just delusional, they are seeing what we are seeing ... a lot of good football players," Ferentz said. "Things are just not quite clicking yet, and my guess is it's going to at some point. I just hope it isn't this Saturday."

That statement is a reminder that the West has hardly gained clear superiority over the East, but with Michigan State and Penn State a combined 1-7, the narrative that the West is the weak link to the conference should at least be waning.

Also, it should not be forgotten that the West had three teams (No. 10 Minnesota, No. 13 Wisconsin, No. 15 Iowa) in the final coaches' poll of 2019 to the East's two (No. 3 Ohio State, No. 9 Penn State). And that was during a rare down year for Northwestern. The West hasn't really been that far behind. It's just got the upper hand, for now.

The upside-down standings could make for some interesting 'Champions week' matchups Dec. 18-19.

Here’s how it looks at the moment (remember, the Big Ten is going to try avoid rematches for these Week 9 games):

First place: Saturday’s Wisconsin-Northwestern winner vs. Saturday’s Ohio State-Indiana winner.

Second place: The Wisconsin-Northwestern loser vs. the Ohio State-Indiana loser.

Third place: Purdue vs. Maryland.

Fourth place: Iowa vs. Saturday’s Michigan-Rutgers winner.

Fifth place: Nebraska vs. Saturday’s Michigan-Rutgers loser.

Sixth place: Minnesota vs. Michigan State.

Seventh place: Illinois vs. Penn State.

Things will change over the remaining four weeks, of course, but those certainly aren't the matchups anyone predicted a month ago.

Where are the deep shots in Iowa’s passing game?

Petras said Tuesday that opposing teams have done a good job preparing for those, and that’s part of the reason Iowa has thrown so many short passes in the first four games. To date, Iowa’s only pass completion for more than 28 yards was a 40-yard catch-and-run by running back Tyler Goodson in the opener at Purdue.

The Hawkeyes only tried two deep shots in the 35-7 win at Minnesota — one on a flea-flicker to Nico Ragaini; one on a ball up the left sideline to Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Petras overthrew the first; he underthrew the second.

“The biggest thing with taking shots a lot of the time is just making sure that it's there,” Petras said. “A lot of teams we've played, they've made an emphasis to take those things away because they know the type of talent we have on the outside.”

Iowa expects to see a lot of blitzes from Penn State on Saturday. That could present some opportunities for big plays. Brandon Smith caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in double coverage against the Nittany Lions in a 17-12 loss last season. Smith (no catches or targets against Minnesota), like the rest of Iowa’s offense, is due for a deep shot.

Iowa sophomore linebacker Seth Benson tackles Northwestern's Drake Anderson at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Seth Benson’s story shows why stellar special-teams play can lead to bigger things.

The redshirt sophomore from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was a two-star recruit. Iowa was his only FBS scholarship offer. He came here to prove himself, and he did so through fearless, aggressive plays on Iowa’s kickoff coverage in 2019.

Now, he’s gotten the opportunity to start Iowa’s last three games at middle linebacker and has played quite well. Benson sees another future contributor on Iowa’s defense starring on special teams, too. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Terry Roberts has been phenomenal on kickoff/punt coverage; remember, it was Roberts who also disrupted Iowa State’s punt-return gaffe that clinched Iowa’s 18-17 win in Ames last season.

“You can see how people compete (on special teams). You can see how people practice,” Benson said. “Terry Roberts, he changes the game each and every week. So yeah, you’ve got to go out there and give it your all and take advantage of every opportunity to be on field.”

Benson has done that, with 28 tackles in three games. But against Minnesota, he ceded time to Jack Campbell, who returned from mononucleosis. They rotated every two series at middle linebacker. Benson played 33 snaps; Campbell played 27. They both performed well, combining for 13 tackles. Ferentz said they "probably" would continue rotating in Happy Valley. That’ll be up to linebackers coach Seth Wallace.

Benson said he and Campbell helped each other between series. It's smart to get them experience, considering they could be the primary inside-linebacker tandem next season after Nick Niemann departs.

“It helps each of us out so we can play faster," Benson said. "(It's) another set of eyes that knows exactly what we need to do"

As a lawsuit from former players over racial discrimination hovers over the program, current players continue to express positive progress reports.

Safety Kaevon Merriweather and kicker Keith Duncan, two of the three players who took the podium in early June amid allegations of racial disparities in the Iowa program, spoke Tuesday about the changes that they’ve seen over the past five-plus months.

Both players, in summation, said that things have improved because of communication. If someone sees something wrong, they say something.

“Just allowing us players to go in and talk to our coaches, about any issues or anything that we have that's going on that we see as wrong, I think that's really a positive step that this program has taken,” Merriweather said.

Duncan, a fifth-year senior, has played with several of the 13 players who have joined the lawsuit against the university that was filed Thursday in Polk County.

“We can't do anything about the past. All we can do is … control our attitudes and efforts during the present (and) in the future,” Duncan said. “And that's basically what it comes down to, is our communication with everyone. If you're uncomfortable, then speak up.”

Wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. was the first Hawkeye player to publicly say he would kneel during the national anthem, and he was able to do that before the Northwestern and Michigan State games at Kinnick Stadium. That freedom, he said Tuesday, was a big step for the program.

“It feels good, that I can express myself the way I want to express myself,” Tracy said. “Most of my teammates feel the same way. If they don’t kneel or do kneel, we all get to express ourselves the way we want to express ourselves.”

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.