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Leistikow's Week 7 Big Ten picks: Why Illinois presents tricky challenge for Iowa

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Kirk Ferentz again this week was discussing comparisons between the 2020 Iowa Hawkeyes and the 2008 team, one of his favorites in 22 years here as head coach.

Current Hawkeyes have heard from Ferentz about that 2008 season, too. Ferentz likes the example, because that group responded well from a batch of painful early-season losses — and a 0-2 Big Ten Conference start, just like this year — and developed good leadership to help finish strong. It was the 2008 team that experienced a lot of great moments but also set the stage for a special season ahead in 2009.

“We are not there yet. We've still got two games to play and then hopefully something after that,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We are on the right path. We have responded the right way, but it's going to be another tough one Saturday.”

Although the 2020 Hawkeyes would love to emulate the 2008 trajectory, they would be wise to avoid one segment of that script. The 2008 team lost to Illinois … something his year's group will try to avoid Saturday at Memorial Stadium against a better-than-you-think Illini squad.

"It doesn't take much for us to get fired up about playing the Hawkeyes," fifth-year Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "… Our upperclassmen have not beaten Iowa since I've been here. That has to give you added motivation, absolutely."

Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes (44) celebrates after intercepting a pass in a 41-23 win at Nebraska; the Illini have secured eight turnovers in their last two games.

After beating Iowa in 2008, the series went on hiatus (you know, Big Ten scheduling quirks) for five years. But since in resumed in 2014, Iowa has won six in a row by a combined 214-60.

How do the Hawkeyes extend that streak to seven?

By not taking Illinois lightly.

The Hawkeyes are coming off three straight wins with emotional meaning — trophy games against rivals Minnesota and Nebraska, sandwiched around snapping a six-game losing streak against decade-long nemesis Penn State. And with another major rivalry game on deck against Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes could be ripe for a letdown against a team that has hardly gone in the tank, as was more the case in trips to Champaign in 2016 (28-0) and 2018 (63-0).

Illinois has experienced recent tastes of success — wins at Rutgers and Nebraska — before having its Ohio State game canceled. It's hungry to prove itself against a more dominant program, much like it did a year ago when shocking Wisconsin as a 31-point underdog.

This is a scary spot for the Hawkeyes. They’re the better team, but maybe not by much.

Iowa wins if …

Here are three keys to an Iowa victory. (Last week, it accomplished two of three in beating Nebraska, 26-20.)

No. 1: Commit one turnover or less. Illinois loves to take the football away; that’s been a Lovie Smith calling card since his NFL days. Illinois has a plus-seven turnover margin during its two-game win streak, and linebacker Jake Hansen alone is responsible for creating a national-best 14 turnovers over the past two seasons (eight forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, three interceptions). Hansen wears No. 35 and according to Pro Football Focus has the nation's No. 1 tackling grade, with no missed tackles this season. A couple early turnovers for Iowa would begin a quick path to defeat.

No. 2: Win the ground battle. Even though Iowa's defense is allowing a Big Ten-low 2.83 yards per opponent carry, that’ll be a difficult rate to maintain. The Illini are averaging 222.4 rushing yards per game. Running backs Mike Epstein and Chase Brown each topped 100 in the 41-23 win at Nebraska. And, if you’ll recall, Illinois’ attacking defense handcuffed the Hawkeyes to just 79 rushing yards on 32 attempts last year in Iowa City (a 19-10 Iowa win). Tyler Goodson had 21 carries for 38 yards in that one. It’ll be incumbent on Tyler Linderbaum, Alaric Jackson and friends to deliver one of their best games of the season.

No. 3: Make it 21 in a row under 25. The Hawkeyes have held 20 consecutive opponents to less than 25 points and are 15-5 in that stretch. Based on the over/under total of 51, oddsmakers expect Illinois to have a tough time reaching 20 points.

Illinois wins if …

Spencer Petras has a bad day. You can bet the Illini have looked at the Northwestern and Nebraska film and saw how those teams made the sophomore quarterback uncomfortable. Northwestern mixed up its coverages; Nebraska did, too, with an emphasis on stuffing the run. It’ll be important for Petras to make smart decisions and connect on a deep throw or two. If he struggles, the Illini can pull the upset.

No. 24 IOWA (4-2) AT ILLINOIS (2-3)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Vegas says: Iowa by 13½ points

Prediction: Iowa 27, Illinois 24 … Going with the same score of the 2008 Iowa-Illinois game, but with a different winner.

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

Assuming three more conference games are played over the next two weekends, the cancellation of 5-1 Northwestern’s game at 2-3 Minnesota clinched the West Division crown for the Wildcats. With the cancellation of Maryland (2-2) at Michigan (2-4), only four Big Ten teams have a chance to play a full schedule — Indiana, Iowa, Penn State and Rutgers.

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

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas says: Ohio State by 23½

Leistikow says: The Buckeyes are no doubt itching to play some football and prove they’re worthy of their No. 4 College Football Playoff ranking. Michigan State will need to hit some big plays in the passing game with Rocky Lombardi to hang close.

Ohio State 45, Michigan State 24

Nebraska (1-4) at Purdue (2-3)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas says: Purdue by 2

Leistikow says: One of the game’s interesting subplots is that Nebraska is facing its ex-defensive coordinator in (ex-Hawkeye) Bobby Diaco. Nebraska’s Scott Frost got a long-term vote of confidence from AD Bill Moos this week. Frost’s Huskers pushed Iowa to the limit, and Purdue is 0-2 since the return of Rondale Moore.

Nebraska 31, Purdue 30

Penn State (1-5) at Rutgers (2-4)

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

Vegas says: Penn State by 11

Leistikow says: Amazing what not coughing up the ball can do. Penn State went back to Sean Clifford and was turnover-free in a solid win at Michigan, while turnover-free Rutgers collected a win at Purdue despite missing starting quarterback Noah Vedral. Impressively, the Scarlet Knights have fought to the end in every game under Greg Schiano.

Penn State 28, Rutgers 24

No. 11 Indiana (5-1) at No. 19 Wisconsin (2-1)

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

Vegas says: Wisconsin by 14

Leistikow says: This game could be of high interest for Iowa fans, considering the Hawkeyes face the Badgers next week and Indiana would be their most likely opponent for the Big Ten’s “Champions Week.” Hoosiers coach Tom Allen says backup quarterback Jack Tuttle “is a special player, too” after he lost starter Michael Penix Jr. for the season (ACL).

Wisconsin 31, Indiana 10

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.