Leistikow's Week 6 Big Ten picks: Iowa can keep turnover train rolling against Nebraska

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Back in October of 2019 (when we could talk to Iowa football players in person), then-defensive back Michael Ojemudia was having a Tuesday conversation about turnover margin. Even though that may sound like a snooze-fest, I remember Ojemudia’s excitement rising as the topic was broached.

“A lot of teams don’t realize how important that is,” Ojemudia confided.

The Hawkeyes do, to the point where players are probably sick of how much head coach Kirk Ferentz brings it up.

But, the recent track record speaks for itself.

In the program's last 27 games, Iowa's turnover margin has been on the negative side just two times.

Two of 27.

The Hawkeyes, predictably, lost both times — on back-to-back weeks to Michigan and Penn State last season.

In that span, they’re 3-4 when the turnover margin is even — as was the case in season-opening losses to Purdue and Northwestern.

But when Iowa wins the turnover margin?

Iowa is 16-2 over the last 27 games when it causes more turnovers than it commits. In other words, when Iowa is on the plus side of this category — it wins on the scoreboard, too, 89% of the time.

It’s no coincidence that the Hawkeyes have pummeled Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State by a combined 125-35 over the last three weeks when you consider they’re plus-seven in turnovers in those games.

The topic is significant entering Friday’s Iowa-Nebraska matchup, one that Huskers coach Scott Frost has been emphasizing this week after seeing his team go minus-five in turnovers in a 41-23 home loss to Illinois. Nebraska wide receiver Kade Warner on Monday called the miscues “self-inflicted sins.”

Zach VanValkenburg has three fumble recoveries this season, including two against Penn State. Iowa is plus-seven in turnovers during its 3-2 start.

“We’ve got to stop beating ourselves and giving the defense short fields and giving the other offense the opportunities to score,” Warner said. “If we fix those and just play our game and … quit those sins, I think it’ll all turn around for us. We’re stressing that again in practice.”

Saying it and doing it, though, are different things. At Nebraska, it's a program desire. At Iowa, it's a program staple.

Frost said practices were lacking urgency a week ago, with players being too content with their prior-week win vs. Penn State. He reported a greater tempo in practice this week.

Frost also assured Nebraska media that the quality of players in his program has markedly improved but that there is still more work to do.

A rivalry win against Iowa — which has won the last five meetings — certainly could be the type of breakthrough Frost needs.

“This season’s not over,” Nebraska playmaker Wan’Dale Robinson said. “… It’s just trying to keep everybody together and knowing we can still do this and we can flip this page. This could be a really big steppingstone for next year.”

Frost is 7-15 in the Big Ten since being hired as Nebraska's coach. In only one of those wins has his team lost the turnover margin. Staying even, at least, gives the Cornhuskers a better chance; his team is just minus-1 against Iowa in two meetings, with both matchups settled by an Iowa field goal in the final seconds.

So, the Black Friday formula for Iowa is simple.

Win the turnover margin. Win the game.

Iowa wins if …

Here are three keys to an Iowa victory. (Last week, it accomplished two of three in beating Penn State, 41-21.)

No. 1: Rush for at least 225 yards. That may seem like a lot, but the Hawkeyes have done that in each of the three wins against Nebraska with Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator. Mekhi Sargent rushed for a career-high 173 yards in 2018. Tyler Goodson set his then-career high with 116 yards (on just 13 carries) last year in Lincoln. It’s doable against the Big Ten’s 13th-ranked rushing defense.

No. 2: Be physical with Nebraska’s quarterback, whoever it is. Both Adrian Martinez or Luke McCaffrey have ample ability to hurt Iowa with their legs. McCaffrey rushed 26 times for 122 yards against Illinois. The Hawkeyes had some early troubles against Penn State’s Will Levis but stuck with their physical style and it paid off later with turnovers.

No. 3: Did I mention turnover margin? To stress the point, Iowa is tied for sixth nationally among 127 FBS teams; Nebraska ranks 118th. The Hawkeyes need to be plus-1 or better, and they’ll be fine.

Nebraska wins if …

The Huskers can be on their way to an upset in Kinnick if they steal Iowa’s formula of starting fast. Nebraska got hot early against Penn State — racing to a 27-6 halftime lead, including with a defensive touchdown — to secure its only win. Iowa, meanwhile, isn’t comfortable playing behind, especially under sophomore signal-caller Spencer Petras.

FRIDAY’S GAME: NEBRASKA (1-3) AT IOWA (3-2)

Time, TV: Noon Central, Fox

Vegas says: Iowa by 13½ points

Prediction: Iowa 34, Nebraska 24 … Tight ends have often had big moments against the Cornhuskers; Noah Fant’s big day in 2017, T.J. Hockenson’s clutch catch in 2018. Feels about time for Sam LaPorta to get his first career touchdown.

Saturday’s Big Ten games (times Central, subject to change)

The battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe was canceled Tuesday due to COVID-19 concerns on the Minnesota's campus. The Gophers (2-3) were set to visit Wisconsin (2-1) on Saturday.

No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) at Illinois (2-3)

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

Vegas says: Ohio State by 28

Leistikow says: The Buckeyes had 300 yards rushing and passing against Indiana, yet still had to hold on to survive the Hoosiers’ upset bid. It's hard to cover a big number when you commit five turnovers. At Nebraska, Illinois gained 205 yards through the air and 285 on the ground; it can score points against a so-so Ohio State defense.

Ohio State 52, Illinois 21 

Penn State (0-5) at Michigan (2-3)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas says: Michigan by 2

Leistikow says: Having just covered a game at Penn State, it's ugly out there for James Franklin. But the same seems to be true at Michigan with Jim Harbaugh, even after an overtime escape at Rutgers. Which team is more likely to keep things together? Considering former Nittany Lion Matt Millen said on BTN this was the worst-tackling Penn State team he’s ever seen, let’s give a slight (not confident) lean to the Wolverines.

Michigan 27, Penn State 24

Maryland (2-1) at No. 12 Indiana (4-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2

Vegas says: Indiana by 14

Leistikow says: The Hoosiers fell just two spots in the rankings after a valiant comeback effort in a 42-35 loss at Ohio State. Even though they’ve already faced the traditional “Big Three” in the East they have three tricky games remaining with Maryland, Wisconsin and Purdue. Maryland resumed practices Monday after missing two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The previous Big Ten team to miss two games with an outbreak was Wisconsin, which responded with a 49-11 rout at Michigan.

Indiana 30, Maryland 27

No. 13 Northwestern (5-0) at Michigan State (1-3)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ESPN2

Vegas says: Northwestern by 11½

Leistikow says: The Wildcats under Pat Fitzgerald are historically great as underdogs, but they’ll be in a less-desirable role as favorites until the Big Ten title game against Ohio State. Despite the efficiency of quarterback Peyton Ramsey, Northwestern's 4.55 yards per play rank last in the Big Ten. Second-to-last ... is Michigan State, at 4.74. And Northwestern has allowed just 10 second-half points all season. No wonder the over/under was set at 41.5.

Northwestern 24, Michigan State 16

Rutgers (1-4) at Purdue (2-2)

Time, TV: 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas says: Purdue by 11½

Leistikow says: This is one of three cross-divisional matchups Saturday; after Iowa’s win at Penn State, the West is 6-3 against the East. Both teams are coming off tough losses; Rutgers in overtime against Michigan; Purdue via a terrible pass-interference call at Minnesota. The last time these teams played, Rutgers won an ugly 14-12 outcome in 2017. It’s safe to bet on more points this time, especially with Rondale Moore (15 catches plus a rushing TD in his season debut) back for the Boilermakers.

Purdue 34, Rutgers 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.