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Leistikow's thoughts: A path exists for an Ohio State-Iowa matchup on Big Ten's 'Champions Week'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

With wins in four consecutive games, No. 24-ranked Iowa is consistently playing good football. And, almost equally notable, the Hawkeyes are … consistently playing football.

Iowa has been among the most fortunate teams in a Big Ten Conference season impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the cancellation of this weekend’s Northwestern-Minnesota game due to rampant coronavirus cases in the Gophers program, Iowa (4-2) is the last remaining Big Ten West Division team to not have a game canceled due to the virus. Four Big Ten East teams have played full slates to date — Indiana, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers.

Iowa’s final two regular-season opponents, Illinois and Wisconsin, were impacted by COVID-19 issues early in the season but have been available to play since. Wisconsin (2-1) has had three games canceled; the Illini (2-3) didn’t play last weekend at Ohio State after a spike in the Buckeyes’ program.

Hawkeyes offensive lineman Cole Banwart credits the team rallying around a common goal of staying on the field — by disciplined social distancing, constantly using hand sanitizer, keeping their circles small outside the football facility — as a big reason why Iowa is on track to play its West-high seventh game Saturday at Illinois (2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

“It is rewarding being out there every day, even with the COVID situation, knowing that some teams right now aren't practicing and they're just sitting at home waiting for the opportunity," Banwart said. "So, every day when we get the opportunity to practice and have meetings, we are taking full advantage."

We knew coming into this unprecedented season that cancellations were inevitable, and so did the Big Ten — which created division tiebreakers to account for imbalanced standings, focused on the loss column. As a result, Northwestern (5-1) was able to effectively clinch the West Division title by virtue of the Minnesota game being canceled.

The only two teams that could've caught Northwestern were Iowa and Wisconsin. But even if Iowa finishes 6-2 and Northwestern 5-2, the Wildcats win the tiebreaker based on their 21-20 win on Oct. 31 in Iowa City. Wisconsin (2-1), meanwhile, cannot meet the six-game minimum requirement to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game Dec. 19 in Indianapolis.

Things could get even more interesting in the coming 10 or so days. If Ohio State (4-0) has one more game canceled, it’ll also fall short of that six-game minimum — opening the door for Indiana (5-1), which lost quarterback Michael Penix Jr. for the season to a torn ACL, to play the Wildcats (led by former Hoosiers QB Peyton Ramsey) in Indianapolis.

And Ohio State on Tuesday was cautiously planning to resume team activities after COVID-19 cases in the program forced the cancellation of last weekend’s game vs. Illinois. The status of Saturday’s game at Michigan State remains uncertain. Even if that game is played, the Buckeyes would need to successfully play Michigan on Dec. 12 for them to get that sixth game.

Adding more drama to that situation, Michigan on Monday paused team activities over what coach Jim Harbaugh called “presumptive” COVID-19 cases.

Potential chaos.

All of this could lead to an unlikely but fascinating “Champions Week” in the Big Ten. If indeed Northwestern and Indiana are playing for a conference title, a matchup of non-division champs would suddenly take on extreme national interest. Under that scenario, a presumed 5-0 Ohio State would probably face the Dec. 12 Iowa-Wisconsin winner in what could be viewed as a College Football Playoff litmus test for the Buckeyes.

There’s no word on where “Champions Week” games will be played. But yes, it’s possible that Iowa would get its shot at Ohio State, after all — and be the team standing in the way of the Buckeyes’ shot at the four-team playoff. On Tuesday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he'd welcome an opportunity for a ninth game ... no matter where it is or who it's against.

"Three months ago, it looked like we had no chance of playing," Ferentz said. "Just the fact that we are playing, we appreciate that. And if we can get to the end of the regular season and have a chance to play one more, we'll play anywhere." 

Iowa tight end Shaun Beyer collects a 22-yard pass on the Hawkeyes' second play from scrimmage against Nebraska. Beyer and the Hawkeyes are averaging 37.8 points during a four-game winning streak.

Ferentz is fresh off his fourth unbeaten November as Iowa’s head coach, but about to play just his second Big Ten game in the month of December.

Iowa’s 26-20 win against Nebraska on Black Friday capped a 4-0 stretch in the month of November, a string that puts the 2020 Hawkeyes in a category with just three other Ferentz-era teams that enjoyed perfect Novembers — 2002 (which went 3-0), 2004 (3-0) and 2015 (4-0).

Those three teams all enjoyed Big Ten championships (shared in 2002 and 2004; a West Division title in 2015) as their reward.

While this team won’t have such an opportunity, there’s something to be said for having a November in which Iowa outscored Big Ten opponents by a combined score of 151-55. Such a turnaround didn't feel realistic from the outside after Iowa began the season with back-to-back losses to Purdue and Northwestern.

Winning out became the team's new goal. To do that, running back Mekhi Sargent said, required a renewed focus in practice on every rep.

“That’s a (testament) to the hard work we've been putting in," Sargent said. "It was a very bad feeling just losing two games right off the jump. But we had to figure out what we wanted out this football season. We had to figure out pretty fast that nothing would be handed to us. We had to go out and earn it."

Iowa running back Mekhi Sargent runs the ball in the second quarter against Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.

Another item on this point: The common thinking has been that Ferentz’s teams typically play better in November. But that’s only slightly true. Ferentz’s Iowa record of 47-34 record in November computes to a .580 winning percentage, compared to his career mark of 101-77 in Big Ten play (.567).

In fact, Ferentz’s November record was a pedestrian 29-28 through the 2014 season. That included a 9-15 stretch from 2009 to 2014. However, he’s cranked it up in the last six Novembers, with a sparkling 18-6 mark. That six-year, 75% clip of November success includes monumental upsets of Michigan (2016) and Ohio State (2017); a historic 63-0 pasting of Illinois (2018); and, of course, six straight wins vs. the Cornhuskers.

Now, let's see how Ferentz's teams fare in December — with three conference games planned, plus a bowl later this month or in early January. Ferentz's only prior December conference game in 22 years at Iowa was the 16-13 loss in the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State.

Where are the jet sweeps? Ihmir Smith-Marsette says they still work.

The senior wide receiver was expected to be a niche part of Iowa’s rushing attack this season, considering he scored on touchdown runs in the Hawkeyes’ final two games of 2019, against Nebraska and USC. Additionally, on Iowa’s media day, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said that jet-sweep action “needs to be a bigger part of our offense going forward.”

But Iowa has called just four jet sweeps in the past three games, netting minus-4 yards. For the season, Smith-Marsette has just four carries for 18 yards.

A case of teams being prepared for the jet sweep … or is Iowa not running it enough?

“It’s an emphasis when (defenses) see our receivers come in motion. It’s harder. (But) it’s definitely not been taken away,” Smith-Marsette said. “Other guys have gotten that play and made tremendous amounts of yards with it. It’s working. It’s working.”

Smith-Marsette is semi-correct, considering Charlie Jones gained 38 yards on two jet sweeps Nov. 7 against Michigan State. While Iowa is running the ball better than it has since at least 2016, the last two weeks — 3.8 yards a carry at Penn State, 2.9 vs. Nebraska — indicate a spark might be needed for the run game. And you know Smith-Marsette (with a career average of 7.7 yards on 31 rushing attempts) would love to provide such a spark against Illinois.

Jack Heflin was as amused as the rest of us when Kirk Ferentz compared him to “a 45-year-old neighbor” a few weeks ago and said he should be in a football movie.

But the graduate-transfer defensive tackle was also perplexed at the reference. So was his mother. Heflin told her, “I don’t know. But I’ll take a compliment any way I can get it.”

Heflin said Tuesday he assumed Ferentz was referring to his outgoing nature. He’ll talk to you about little things and ask how your family’s doing.

“I kind of just do stuff. I don't sit there and remember all the stuff I do, but I try to joke around and get guys in a good mood,” Heflin said. “I don’t like being in a bad mood myself, and if I catch myself, I just start joking around.”

On the health front, Heflin said he caught a cold last week  and that’s why Noah Shannon got his first career start. But Heflin came off the bench and was able to play 33 snaps against Nebraska.

Like a good neighbor, Jack Heflin is there.

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.