Leistikow's Iowa vs. Indiana prediction: One critical stat will decide top-20 Big Ten bout

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — This is a story that could be written any week, but this might be the best week — the first of the 2021 Iowa football season — to write it.

There is one simple-sounding goal that if the Hawkeyes achieve Saturday, they’ll be nearly guaranteed a victory against No. 17-ranked Indiana on Duke Slater Field at Kinnick Stadium.

Two words.

Zero turnovers.

“When we don’t turn the ball over, we win the game over 90% of the time. It’s a really important stat,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said this week. “If we’re throwing … it’s up to me to take care of the football.”

He can say that again.

When is the Iowa football game? How to watch, stream and listen to Hawkeyes vs. Indiana

Some of Iowa’s most memorable wins in the last five years have centered around this statistic.

Did you know Iowa hasn’t committed a turnover against Iowa State since the 2015 season? That's certainly been a big factor in Iowa winning five straight Cy-Hawk meetings.

The 55-24 thrashing of Ohio State in 2017? Constant momentum and no turnovers.

Indiana secured 20 takeaways, including 17 interceptions, a season ago to lead the Big Ten Conference. Cornerback Taiwan Mullen (3) is among five all-Big Ten defenders returning.

The 40-10 and 56-14 routs of Mike Riley’s Cornhuskers in 2016 and 2017? Clean football both times.

The 49-24 rout of USC in the 2019 Holiday Bowl? You guessed it. A goose egg in the turnover column.

When Iowa commits one or zero turnovers, it has a 21-2 record since the start of the 2018 season; it's 4-7 when it coughs the ball up twice or more.

The stat is more staggering when Iowa has zero turnovers. The Hawkeyes have won 15 straight when turnover-free and are averaging 35.9 points in those contests. The last time they lost a game despite a no-turnover day was 17-9 to Wisconsin on Oct. 22, 2016.

“We have to really protect the football,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said this week. “True in any game, but it's going to be important in this game.”

More:Attending Iowa football vs. Indiana? You can get a COVID vaccine at Kinnick Stadium.

That’s because Indiana will bring an attacking, turnover-capable defense into Kinnick Stadium. The Hoosiers were second nationally in 2020 with 17 interceptions. They led the Big Ten with 3.13 sacks per game. Seven Hoosiers from that defense earned all-Big Ten honors, and five of them are back in 2021.

Get the extra significance of the turnover stat?

Considering everyone in the Hawkeye camp is talking about it, you know it’s been preached all week. But one of the tricky things about openers is there are a lot of new players on the field. It’s way easier said than done that the Hawkeyes can take 70 or so offensive snaps and maintain possession of the ball every time. But that is so paramount Saturday for Petras and the offense.

When Iowa's on defense? It sees opportunity.

Related:Leistikow: As game week arrives, Hawkeyes ready to lean on Phil Parker's defensive plan

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is no doubt a playmaker. But one of the reasons he threw for 491 yards at Ohio State last year was behind a go-for-broke approach. He’s willing to take chances with the hopes of making a big play. Despite the gaudy numbers, Penix had a pedestrian 56.4% completion rate last season.

Protecting the football is key against Indiana. So is taking it away, and the Hawkeyes' Riley Moss is known for having a knack for the football with six career interceptions.

“It reminds me of Purdue. They’re Air Raid. Their quarterback’s not afraid to throw a 50/50 ball, which as a corner is fun,” cornerback Riley Moss said. “Love the opportunity. It’ll be a fun game.”

Remember, the Hawkeyes have 64 interceptions since 2017 — tied for most in the nation. All five starters in the secondary return from last year’s top-eight national defense.

More:How Iowa football defenders plan to slow down Indiana's quick-pass attack

“Trying to get the ball back in the offense’s hand is key,” Moss said, “and we preach that every game.”

Iowa wins if …

I just provided the main key to the game. But OK, here's another one. Stay patient. Even though Ferentz's teams are 18-2 in openers since 2001, the Hawkeyes often start slowly out of the season gate. They trailed 3-0 late in the second quarter vs. Wyoming in 2017 before winning, 24-3; they were up 3-0 at halftime vs. Northern Illinois in 2018 before rolling, 33-7; they were down 7-3 in the second quarter to Miami of Ohio in 2019 before coasting, 38-14.

Indiana wins if …

The Hoosiers steal a page from the book of Jeff Brohm at Purdue; and we already outlined that their offensive style is similar. Iowa's zone schemes struggled to find an answer for Purdue receiver David Bell in last year's opener in West Lafayette, Indiana, and the Hawkeyes lost, 24-20. Indiana's best path to move the football is from Penix to Ty Fryfogle, the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year. Feed Fryfogle early and lean on that attacking defense late.

NO. 18 INDIANA (0-0) AT NO. 17 IOWA (0-0)

Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Prediction: Iowa 27, Indiana 17  Petras enjoys a clean season debut while completing 70% of his passes in an efficient performance; the Iowa defense helps out with two interceptions. Iowa covers the 3½-point spread.

Friday’s Big Ten game (times Central, subject to change)

Note: Ohio State beat Minnesota, 45-31, on Thursday night.

Michigan State (0-0) at Northwestern (0-0)

Time, TV: 8 p.m., ESPN

Prediction: Initially favored by 7 ½ points, the Wildcats’ favorite status has dwindled. Why? Maybe because Hunter Johnson is the quarterback, Northwestern usually starts slow and Michigan State has won the last two meetings. The Spartans have yet to name a quarterback to succeed West Des Moines Valley’s Rocky Lombardi, now at Northern Illinois. Northwestern 20, Michigan State 19

Saturday’s other Big Ten games (times CT)

Penn State (0-0) at Wisconsin (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox

Prediction: The Badgers are widely predicted to be the second-best team in the Big Ten, and they're playing at home. Iowa fans probably ought to hold their nose and root for James Franklin, as any Wisconsin loss helps the Hawkeyes' Big Ten West path. Wisconsin 28, Penn State 20

Western Michigan (0-0) at Michigan (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., ESPN

Prediction: Spread (Michigan by 16½) seem kind of low? Don't forget, the Wolverines were dreadful last year and Western Michigan brings an efficient, high-powered offense behind quarterback Kaleb Eleby. Meantime, Cade McNamara is set to become the fifth Week 1 starting QB in Jim Harbaugh's seven seasons in Ann Arbor. (Ex-Hawkeye Jake Rudock was the first!) Michigan 38, Western Michigan 27

Fordham (0-0) at Nebraska (0-1)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Prediction: Scott Frost's lack of attention to special teams showed up in a Week 0 loss at Illinois but that won't matter Saturday. Good to see Iowa City native and ex-Hawkeye Oliver Martin have a career-high six catches for 103 yards with a TD in the opener for Nebraska. Nebraska 54, Fordham 7

Temple (0-0) at Rutgers (0-0)

Time, TV: 11 a.m., BTN

Prediction: This game was pushed back from Thursday due to flooding caused by Hurricane Ida. The Scarlet Knights might have a pretty good offense this year behind Nebraska transfer Noah Vedral. Rutgers 35, Temple 21

West Virginia (0-0) at Maryland (0-0)

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

Prediction: Could we be in the final five years of seeing regular Big 12 vs. Big Ten matchups? Hawkeye fans should watch this one closely, with the Terrapins being Iowa's second conference opponent Oct. 1. Maryland has a history of starting seasons strong (before finishing poorly). Maryland 27, West Virginia 24

Oregon State (0-0) at Purdue (0-0)

Time, TV: 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Prediction: Since that memorable 49-20 shellacking of Ohio State in the middle of the 2018 season, the Boilermakers have just a .333 winning percentage (8-16). Jeff Brohm has never gotten quarterback right; this year it's Jack Plummer's turn. I think Purdue finishes last in the Big Ten West. Oregon State 38, Purdue 35

Texas-San Antonio (0-0) at Illinois (1-0)

Time, TV, line: 6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

Prediction: After collecting an emotionally charged win against Nebraska, Bret Bielema will have to get his team amped up for a quality Conference USA opponent while likely starting backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski. This could be a sneaky-interesting game to close the Big Ten's first full week of action. Illinois 27, UTSA 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.