Leistikow's Iowa-Purdue prediction: Time for No. 2 Hawkeyes to get run game going

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Kirk Ferentz this week spoke about having “scar tissue” from Iowa's 2017 game against Purdue, a poorly played 24-15 loss as a six-point home favorite.

The 23rd-year Iowa head coach also could have referenced scar tissue from one week earlier, which might serve as a more apt warning sign ahead of the Hawkeyes’ latest matchup against Purdue (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC).

It was on Nov. 11, 2017, that Iowa was playing its first game after a euphoric home win against a top-five powerhouse program. That was the week after Iowa trounced Ohio State, 55-24, in an unforgettable performance. It was then that Iowa had its worst offensive game of the 23-year Ferentz era — just 66 yards in a 38-14 loss at Wisconsin in which both Iowa touchdowns were scored by the defense.

That game stirs memories that college football is a game played with high emotion. There are highs and lows. These are 20-year-old kids, not seasoned NFL pros who have experience in handling such situations. The second-ranked Hawkeyes’ mental fortitude will be tested as much as anything Saturday, seven days after a 23-20 win against Penn State in a top-five matchup at electric Kinnick Stadium.

Having another sold-out stadium should help, assuming the fans can also bring their best Saturday.

But there’s a really good way for Iowa to turn back Purdue’s upset bid: By controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football.

Iowa’s young-but-improving defensive line should have an edge Saturday, with Purdue’s offensive line considered one of its weaker units. The Boilermakers aren’t much of a running threat; their 2.78 yards per carry is 124th out of 130 FBS teams.

Tyler Goodson, left, had 25 carries for 88 much-needed yards Saturday in a 23-20 win against Penn State. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is encouraged that a run-game breakout is coming.

But you don’t have to scroll too far up the rush rankings to find Iowa at 114th nationally (3.19 yards per carry). Yes, that number is skewed by Iowa’s extremely conservative offensive strategy when it’s well ahead (70 of Iowa’s 232 rushing attempts have come with leads of 15-plus points) . But it’s a concerning drop-off from Iowa's healthy 4.62 yards per rush a year ago — the program’s highest mark since 2008.

The Hawkeyes’ first-down rushing numbers are even worse, at 2.63 yards per carry. That included 10 first-down rushes against Penn State of zero or negative yardage. 

For what it’s worth, Ferentz said he’s focusing on the film … not the statistics.

“I just look at the tape week-to-week and just see us getting a little bit better, and that's kind of referencing the effort that we've played (with) the last two weeks; I think is closer to what we want if we're going to be successful,” Ferentz said. “All the numbers and stats … they will end up where we hope they are.”

More:What channel is Iowa football vs. Purdue? How to watch, stream and listen to Hawkeyes' homecoming game

Running the ball against Purdue, which has the third-ranked defense in the Big Ten Conference, won’t be a picnic. The Boilermakers are yielding just 3.7 yards per carry and have two future NFL players in their front seven in defensive end George Karlaftis and outside linebacker Jalen Graham.

But Iowa needs to buckle down and be bullish. If it is going to continue to have a special season, it needs to fire off in the running game at four and five yards per clip. The weather will get colder soon, and having a reliable ground attack can carve a path to Indianapolis on Dec. 4 for the Big Ten Championship Game.

That ground-game goal and commitment should be a focus Saturday. If Iowa's offensive line embraces that challenge and wins in the trenches, that’s the surest way to cure any emotional hangover.

Purdue wins if …

Aidan O’Connell is expected to start at quarterback, an indication that Jeff Brohm is going to deploy a similar strategy as last year’s 24-20 win against Iowa: Lots of short, safe passes with David Bell as the primary target. That plan can work again, especially with Iowa missing national interceptions leader Riley Moss (knee), as long as Purdue protects the football. The Boilermakers are last in the Big Ten in takeaways (with two), but they’ve forced seven opponent fumbles … yet haven’t recovered any. A prudent offense with calculated deep shots plus some turnover luck can create an upset win.

Iowa wins if …

This is a week in which knocking out (or benching) the other team’s starting QB isn’t as big a deal; expected No. 2 Jack Plummer is equally capable for Purdue. Thus, Iowa’s biggest advantages are in ball security and punting. If Spencer Petras (two interceptions in last eight starts) and Tory Taylor (five punts downed between the 1 and 8 vs. Penn State) do their thing, Iowa will be fine. Purdue’s safety play has been suspect; Petras would be wise to take a few deep shots. A long TD catch by Keagan Johnson or Charlie Jones or Tyrone Tracy Jr. could be in the cards.

More:Leistikow: Why does Iowa football have such a tough time against Purdue? Let's dive in.

Purdue (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) at No. 2 Iowa (6-0, 3-0)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC, Iowa by 11½ points.

Prediction: Iowa 22, Purdue 17. … After an exhilarating win against unbeaten, third-ranked Penn State in 2008, Iowa responded with an ugly 22-17 home win against Purdue. Similar situation, same score 13 years later. Tyler Goodson rushes for 100 yards and Terry Roberts delivers an interception in his first career start.

More:Analyzing how Iowa football avoids a mental letdown Saturday and beyond, as national spotlight grows

Saturday’s other Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

No. 9 Michigan State (6-0, 3-0) at Indiana (2-3, 0-2)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1, Michigan State by 4½

Prediction: While Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum gained some Heisman Trophy momentum this week, maybe the most realistic shot from the Big Ten is Michigan State's Kenneth Walker III. He already has 913 rushing yards (No. 1 in FBS by 114 yards) and averages 7.1 per carry. If Sparty passes this tricky road test, it gets an off week before hosting Michigan on Oct. 30. A Hoosiers win would help Iowa's résumé. Michigan State 31, Indiana 24

Nebraska (3-4, 1-3) at Minnesota (3-2, 1-1)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., ESPN2, Nebraska by 3½

Prediction: For being below .500, it's astonishing that Nebraska is outgaining its opponents by an average of 152 yards per game. Poor special teams, penalties and ill-timed turnovers have haunted the Huskers. An Iowa win and Minnesota loss on Saturday would give the Hawkeyes a 2½-game lead in the West. Nebraska 31, Minnesota 20

Rutgers (3-3, 0-3) at Northwestern (2-3, 0-2)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Rutgers by 2

Prediction: It's difficult to have any faith in a Northwestern defense that has allowed 1,168 yards in its two Big Ten games. Here's guessing a bye week and having Pat Fitzgerald as coach will benefit the Wildcats against a pretty-average Rutgers team still learning how to win under Greg Schiano. Northwestern 21, Rutgers 17

Army (4-1) at Wisconsin (2-3, 1-2)

Time, TV, line: 7 p.m., BTN, Wisconsin by 13½

Prediction: You've got to love service-academy football. The Black Knights have attempted just 33 passes all season while rushing 325 times. That should bode well for Wisconsin, which has the nation's No. 1 rush defense. The Badgers got back to their ground-and-pound ways (391 rushing yards) last week in a 24-0 shutout of Illinois. Wisconsin 24, Army 7

More:How confident is Iowa football in its backup quarterbacks? Position coach Ken O'Keefe answers.

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.