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Leistikow's Week 8 Big Ten picks: Iowa must play 'absolute best game' to beat Wisconsin

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There are 120 players on Iowa’s football roster. Not one has beaten Wisconsin.

That should be incentive enough for the Hawkeyes (5-2) entering their regular-season finale Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

“It's certainly an added motivation,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said, “that none of us have held the Heartland Trophy.”

Streaks are made to be broken, sure, but they’re often difficult to break for a reason.

Just ask Minnesota, which has tried and failed to earn the right to hoist the Floyd of Rosedale trophy each of the last six seasons.

Or Nebraska, which has come close the last three years against Iowa but is 0-6 in the battle of the Heroes Trophy since 2015.

Or Illinois, which on Saturday lost for the seventh straight time to Iowa.

Runs of futility can be hard to break. Wisconsin has had Iowa’s number recently, especially in Kinnick — where it’s won five straight meetings, dating to the 31-30 thriller (or heartbreaker, depending on your perspective) in 2010.

“We've had some great games over the years,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who was 6-2 against the Badgers between 2002 and 2009 but is 1-7 since. “I do know this from experience: If you're going to beat them, you have to beat them. It's not easy. We have to play our absolute best game.”

Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette is 0-for-3 against Wisconsin. Perhaps a deep shot Saturday would help the Hawkeyes get over the top.

There have been a lot of feel-good vibes in this Iowa season after the 0-2 start. The five-game winning streak has produced some of the best complementary football of the Ferentz era. The Hawkeyes are averaging 37.2 points during their 5-0 run; the stingy defense has continued a remarkable stretch of 21 straight games of allowing fewer than 25 points; and the special teams are among the best in the country.

A win against Wisconsin, and the Hawkeyes will have broken through against two programs that have dominated them in the past decade. A 41-21 win at Penn State on Nov. 21 cracked a string of six losses, dating to 2011.

But if Iowa loses to Wisconsin … it’ll feel like a missed opportunity and the same-old, same-old. And it won't get another chance against the Badgers until Nov. 27, 2021.

Iowa wins if …

Here are three keys to an Iowa victory. (Last week, it accomplished 3-for-3 in beating Illinois, 35-21.)

No. 1: Average 4.0 yards per carry. My previous Iowa-Wisconsin preview column was entirely about the importance of the rushing totals. The team with more rushing yards has been the winner on the scoreboard in the last decade. Taking that stat further, the last time a team won the Iowa-Wisconsin game with fewer rushing attempts was 2003 — when Nathan Chandler and the Hawkeyes escaped Madison with a 27-21 win. Picking off 4.0 per carry won’t be easy for Iowa against a Wisconsin rushing defense leading the country (at 72.3 yards per game), but it’ll be required to develop the necessary commitment to the run. Don’t be afraid to lean on the Tyler Goodson-led Wildcat offense to create run-game advantages.

No. 2: Start a new interception streak. The Hawkeye defense’s run of 12 games with an interception has turned into two straight games without one. Part of that has been a byproduct of facing run-oriented quarterbacks. But Phil Parker’s defense will try to put the game on Graham Mertz’s shoulders. Wisconsin’s talented quarterback looked unstoppable in the opener, going 20-for-21 against Illinois with five touchdowns. But he hasn't been the same since contracting COVID-19. Taking cues from the last two defenses Mertz has faced, Northwestern and Indiana were able to disrupt him and force bad decisions. Mertz coughed up the football four times against the Wildcats in a 17-7 loss; he was responsible for two turnovers (one interception, one first-quarter sack-fumble) in the 14-6 loss to Indiana.

No. 3: Win in the red zone. One of the Wisconsin defense’s most remarkable stats is that just six opponent drives have gotten inside its 20-yard line. And only four of those drives have resulted in points. Iowa has converted 23 touchdowns and eight field goals on 34 red-zone trips this season, a testament to its running game. But one way Iowa can work around Wisconsin’s stingy red-zone defense? Hit a home run. Petras is tied for the Big Ten lead in passing attempts, but has yet to hit a long touchdown toss. This would be a great time for his first.

Wisconsin wins if …

The Badgers get off to a crisp start. With three games canceled over COVID-19 issues, they’ve had difficulty finding a rhythm since the dynamic opener. Wisconsin uncharacteristically committed 16 penalties and seven turnovers in the losses to Northwestern and Indiana. The Badgers may already feel like this is a lost season internally, but if they can jump out to some early success at Kinnick Stadium — against an Iowa team that outscored opponents in the first half, 136-62 — they might find the confidence they need to revert to their usual form.

NO. 25 WISCONSIN (2-2) at NO. 18 IOWA (5-2)

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

Vegas says: Wisconsin by 2

Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 19 ... Iowa opened as a 3-point favorite but expected snowy conditions have bettors flocking to the Badgers. The current program trajectories lean Iowa, the analytics still lean toward Wisconsin. The Badgers' coaching staff always seem to be ready for whatever the Hawkeyes throw their way.

Saturday’s other Big Ten games (times Central)

The cancellations of Ohio State-Michigan and Indiana-Purdue for COVID-19 issues leave us with five Big Ten games Saturday, with the league’s “Champions Week” in complete limbo.

Illinois (2-4) at No. 14 Northwestern (5-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN2

Vegas says: Northwestern by 14½

Leistikow says: Illinois coach Lovie Smith says to "show up on Saturday, and you'll see" who he starts at quarterback between Brandon Peters (who was benched against Iowa) or Isaiah Williams. Northwestern needs a strong performance entering next week's Big Ten Championship Game following a flat loss to Michigan State.

Northwestern 24, Illinois 14

Minnesota (2-4) at Nebraska (2-4)

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

Vegas says: Nebraska by 10½

Leistikow says: The Gophers haven't played since Nov. 20 after COVID-19 issues in their program and now star receiver Rashod Bateman has opted out for the season. The Cornhuskers are getting inspired play from quarterback Adrian Martinez and would like to atone for last year's 34-7 loss to Minnesota. 

Nebraska 31, Minnesota 24 

Rutgers (2-5) at Maryland (2-2)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Vegas says: Maryland by 8

Leistikow says: Playing football would be a victory for Maryland, which has had just one game since Nov. 7 — a 27-11 loss to Indiana. The Terrapins should be able to move the football; if they don't turn the ball over, they should cruise. 

Maryland 35, Rutgers 21

Michigan State (2-4) at Penn State (2-5)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ABC

Vegas says: Penn State by 15

Leistikow says: The unpredictable Spartans own the Big Ten's worst offense, and Penn State's defense has been stingy during a two-game win streak (12.0 ppg allowed).

Penn State 34, Michigan State 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.