Leistikow's Iowa-Wisconsin prediction: Let's see what changes Hawkeye offense has made

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — Every square inch of FieldTurf at Camp Randall Stadium will become precious between 11 a.m. and roughly 2 p.m. Saturday when No. 10 Iowa faces Wisconsin. The over-under of 36½ points set by oddsmakers is the lowest total of any college football game this season.

The biggest microscope Saturday will be on what appears to be the biggest mismatch: Iowa’s 119th-ranked offense (out of 130 FBS teams) vs. Wisconsin’s second-ranked defense.

That is the big story of this massive game, especially considering the Hawkeyes have had two weeks to make changes after a deflating 24-7 home loss to Purdue. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has had time to identify things that haven’t worked through seven games and find ways to make them better.

Or, do different things entirely.

What, if anything, was done to improve offensively will be revealed Saturday.

So, what might Iowa’s (treacherous) offensive road map to victory look like?

One thing that Iowa coaches understand is Wisconsin’s defensive efficiency on third downs. Success on third down has long been a staple of Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 scheme, which attacks weaknesses and highlights physical linebackers. Saturday, that'll mean inside backers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn coming after pocket-passing quarterback Spencer Petras and a work-in-progress offensive line.

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Play-calling is one of the biggest pieces of Iowa's execution puzzle Saturday in Madison.

The Badgers are allowing first-down conversions on just 26.8% of third downs, easily tops in the Big Ten Conference. The numbers are more pronounced when opponents face third-and-7 or longer — just a 14.9% success rate, with only seven such conversions through seven games.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, on his Wednesday radio show, acknowledged that avoiding third-and-long will be a primary part of Iowa’s game plan.

“You have to run it, and you have to run it effectively,” he said. “The biggest thing; you can’t have negative-yardage plays against these guys. They thrive on that.

“Keeping the chains in manageable situations is going to be really big for us.”

Avoiding third-and-longs puts a lot of pressure on first down.

Outside of the always-important turnover-margin stat, Iowa’s success — or lack thereof — on first down is perhaps the biggest key.

More:Leistikow: Pessimistic about Hawkeyes' chances in Madison? Here are reasons for optimism

First down has been a huge problem for this Iowa offense, whether running or passing. The Hawkeyes have averaged a meager 2.68 yards per carry on 131 first-down rushing attempts; and they’re completing just 47.9% of their 73 first-down passes.

The Hawkeyes have been a pretty solid second-down passing team — 50-for-74 for 558 yards. Getting to second-and-5 or second-and-6 can mean a world of difference for an offense that has been stewing for two weeks.

“I won’t dive too much into what our game plan is this week. But (first-down yardage) is a goal we are not meeting,” Petras said. “If you have success on first down, it just makes everything else a lot easier. A lot more freedom than if you’re second-and-12 or second-and-9, whatever.

“On my plate, if we’re running the ball, I’ve got to make sure it’s the right run, that we’re not running any dead plays. In the pass game, it’s executing what’s there. Getting chunk yards when we can.”

It’s not just about run vs. pass, though. Against a Wisconsin defense that is allowing just 3.42 yards on first down, play-calling creativity will be important for Brian Ferentz. The Badgers are a well-schooled machine that can easily detect Iowa tendencies. Part of better execution — a word Iowa coaches love to use — also means better play-calling before the on-field blocking and running. On Saturday, more unpredictable first-down calls are crucial for a team that has allowed 8.0 tackles for loss per game (121st in FBS).

More:Here's what Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz said in his press conference before the Wisconsin game

If Brian Ferentz can bring more variety to this game Saturday — maybe more shotgun runs with jet-sweep action, some Wildcat, some first-down deep shots — I like Iowa’s chances to score enough points to win. If Iowa is too predictable, the Badgers will emerge Saturday in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West title.

Iowa wins if …

The first quarter has been (by far) Iowa’s worst quarter this season (outscored, 41-29). Getting off to a good start could be doubly critical Saturday. With an early kick, Wisconsin’s student section won’t be full until at least the second quarter. Playing with a lead would also put more pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who has been so dreadful (two touchdowns, seven interceptions, four lost fumbles) that Wisconsin is limiting him to about a dozen throws per game. Iowa's special-teams play has to be perfect. When Iowa gets inside the Wisconsin 30, it needs to score at least three points. Kicker Caleb Shudak's accuracy (11-of-13 on field goals this season) may be a deciding factor.

Wisconsin wins if …

The Badgers want to continue their recent strategy of pounding the run and relying on defense. They are excruciatingly patient in the run game and apply immense pressure on a defense when they can get into third-and-short situations. Wisconsin is minus-7 in turnovers this year (vs. Iowa’s plus-12) but seemed to turn the tide last week by forcing five Purdue miscues. Hiding Mertz and riding the offensive line and defense is the primary Wisconsin path to victory.

Wisconsin (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten) at No. 10 Iowa (6-1, 3-1)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN, Wisconsin by 3½ points

Prediction: Wisconsin 17, Iowa 13. … The Hawkeyes’ only wins against Wisconsin since the infamous 2010 fake punt came in 2015 (thanks to four Badgers turnovers in a 10-6 slog) and in 2020 (against an injury- and COVID-depleted Wisconsin roster). History and the home crowd are stacked against Iowa.

Saturday's other Big Ten games 

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

No. 6 Michigan (7-0, 4-0) at No. 7 Michigan State (7-0, 4-0)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox, Michigan by 4

Prediction: Two of college football's last nine unbeatens clash in "Beast" Lansing, with ESPN's College GameDay on the scene. No team in the Big Ten has run the ball better or with more frequency than Michigan. The Spartans have been underwhelming in recent wins but their offensive firepower in Kenneth Walker III (142.4 rushing yards a game, tops in the nation) and receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor (combined 1,074 receiving yards, 11 TDs) stack up well with the Wolverines. Plus, they're at home. Michigan State 24, Michigan 21

Rutgers (3-4, 0-4) at Illinois (3-5, 2-3)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Rutgers by 1½

Prediction: Have you noticed the Big Ten trend? Win a big game one week, collapse at home the next. That happened to Iowa (after beating Penn State) and to Purdue (after beating Iowa). Now it's Illinois' turn to try to muster up some emotion after stunning Penn State in Happy Valley. Rutgers 19, Illinois 17

Indiana (2-5, 0-4) at Maryland (4-3, 1-3)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Maryland by 5

Prediction: While it's usually a good idea to fade the Terrapins in the second half of any season, Indiana's quarterback situation is dire. Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle are "week to week," which means true freshman Donaven McCulley or walk-on Grant Gremel could start. Yikes. Maryland 28, Indiana 10

Purdue (4-3, 2-2) at Nebraska (3-5, 1-4)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., ESPN2, Nebraska by 7½

Prediction: It's crazy that Nebraska has the nation's No. 12 offense and No. 44 defense yet is last in the Big Ten West (and has Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa on deck). Also crazy: This is Adrian Martinez's fourth start against the Boilermakers (he's 1-2). This is an absolute must-win for the Huskers to have any shot at Scott Frost's first bowl-eligible season there. Nebraska 35, Purdue 31

Minnesota (5-2, 3-1) at Northwestern (3-5, 2-3)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Minnesota by 7½

Prediction: If not for the inconceivable meltdown against Bowling Green, the Gophers would be a top-20 team with their only other loss to Ohio State by "just" 14. The path is clear for them to be 5-1 in Big Ten play heading to Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 13. (A home game against Illinois is on deck.) Minnesota 24, Northwestern 14

No. 17 Penn State (5-2, 2-2) at No. 5 Ohio State (6-1, 4-0)

Time, TV, line: 6:30 p.m., ABC, Ohio State by 18½

Prediction: On a podcast this week, Nittany Lions beat writer Audrey Snyder of The Athletic suggested that, "Iowa broke Penn State." Meantime, the Buckeyes have changed defensive schemes midseason and are finding greater success … to go with college football's most dynamic offense (559.3 yards per game). Sean Clifford said he's 100%, but many are skeptical about that claim. Penn State coach James Franklin said some strange things this week in media interviews and could be on the verge of a third straight loss, with games against Michigan and Michigan State still to come. Ohio State 38, Penn State 23

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.