Big Ten West analysis: Iowa's path to Indy runs through these 3 teams

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa withered in the fourth quarter and lost to an FCS opponent Saturday, costing itself not just a game but any semblance of national prestige.

Whither the Hawkeyes now?

“I had Iowa winning the Big Ten West early, but because of last week, I’ve got Nebraska now,” Stanley Jackson said, echoing a common refrain among college football analysts. “It’s tough for me to pick them after losing that game.”

Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska stand in the way of a Big Ten West title for Iowa, which opens league play Saturday at Rutgers.

That game was a 23-21 setback to North Dakota State. It snapped a 14-game home win streak for Iowa, which fell from No. 11 to 25 in the coaches’ poll as a result. It was a devastating way to end the nonconference schedule.

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The Hawkeyes lost their mojo and, likely, any longshot chance at a college football playoff berth.

Here’s what wasn’t lost: The trophies that reside inside the Iowa football complex. As Iowa begins Big Ten Conference play Saturday, the path back to Indianapolis seems simple — keep those trophies in place. Beating Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska should put Iowa back atop the West. Doing that would restore the luster stolen by NDSU.

“They still have a very favorable schedule. I think they have the best balance on offense outside of Nebraska. I think you could put C.J. Beathard up against any quarterback in the nation. They have dynamic linebackers, the best cornerback (Desmond King) in the country, great depth at running back,” said Jackson, a former Ohio State quarterback who now works for the Big Ten Network.

“That loss could be the wakeup call that Iowa needed.”

The Hawkeyes (2-1) were the popular pick to win the Big Ten West entering the season. They finished 12-2 last year, suffering a 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the conference title game in Indianapolis. They returned stars in Beathard, King and linebacker Josey Jewell.

They enter league play with lower expectations and will face nine opponents whose fortunes have also swung wildly since the preseason. Nebraska and Wisconsin have scored victories over ranked opponents and have climbed into the national rankings. Northwestern and Illinois have suffered embarrassing losses and seemed to join Purdue in pushover territory. Minnesota hasn’t shown yet that it can consistently move the ball against a quality team, but it does get to host Iowa on Oct. 8.

So, assuming Iowa holds serve against the teams it should beat, starting with Rutgers on Saturday and including Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois; and assuming the Hawkeyes at least split games against enigmatic Penn State (on the road) and mighty Michigan (at home) — that leaves three games to decide the West.

Let’s take a closer look at those, based on what we know after three weeks of play:

Quarterback Mitch Leidner and the Golden Gophers will present a stiff test for Iowa in the Big Ten West.

At Minnesota, Oct. 8

The Gophers are 2-0 after home victories against Oregon State and Indiana State. Minnesota averaged 221 rushing yards per game and allowed no sacks of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Tailback Shannon Brooks is about to return from a foot injury to add to that prowess on the ground.

And yet …

“I’m still not sold on the Gophers,” Jackson said. “It’s tough to be one-dimensional. You need to throw it consistently and effectively. They just haven’t shown the ability to do that. You think Wisconsin’s going to be worried about Minnesota’s running game? Iowa shouldn’t be worried either.”

Leidner, a senior, has completed 29 of 40 passes for 397 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in his past two games against Iowa. Hawkeye fans undoubtedly see why ESPN’s Todd McShay pegged him as a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

Jackson doesn’t see it.

Iowa's C.J. Beathard back on the mend before Big Ten play

“He’s been good in moments. But it’s going to take more than that to compete for a Big Ten title,” Jackson said. “He hasn’t shown the accuracy. He’s got to be more disciplined with his mechanics.”

As Leidner goes, so go the Gophers. The Hawkeyes have a great chance to hang on to Floyd of Rosedale if they can force him out of his rhythm.

The return of Wisconsin running back Corey Clement provides a major boost for its rushing attack.

Vs. Wisconsin, Oct. 22

The Badgers opened the season by upending No. 5 LSU 16-14 and have gone from unranked to No. 10 in the latest coaches’ poll. That’s heady stuff for a team that was disregarded early because of a rugged schedule and inexperience at quarterback and in the defensive secondary.

But Wisconsin can still run the football, and its defense may be the best in the Big Ten West, allowing only 261 yards and 13.7 points per game. Jackson said its linebacker trio could be the top unit in the nation.

A retooled offensive line is looking poised to continue a Badger tradition of power.

“We’re more confident, that’s important,” sophomore offensive lineman Michael Deiter told reporters this week. “We've seen some crazy stuff over these last two weeks that makes us grow even more. So I'm definitely more excited about going into Big Ten play with these guys here than I was last year."

What Wisconsin hasn’t identified yet is a clear starting quarterback. Senior Bart Houston got the call when the season began, only to run into trouble whenever his offense moved into the red zone. Last week, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook came on in the third quarter to help Wisconsin avoid a startling upset and defeat Georgia State 23-17. Coach Paul Chryst on Thursday named Hornibrook the starter for Saturday’s Big Ten opener, at Michigan State.

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It appears to be a fluid situation.

“I’ve never liked fooling around with quarterbacks. Pick one and go with him,” said Jackson, who split time with Joe Germaine en route to a Buckeye victory in the 1997 Rose Bowl. “You damage both guys’ confidence so neither one is really ready to go when you need him.”

That’s one concern for Wisconsin. The other is the toughest schedule in the Big Ten West.

The Badgers travel to Michigan State this week, Michigan next Saturday and then host Ohio State, all among the nation’s top eight teams. That’s before getting in to Big Ten West play with a trip to Iowa.

Chryst didn’t want to dwell on that narrative, however.

“You've got to approach each week as its own week and be in that moment and enjoy that,” Chryst said at his weekly news conference. “And then at the end of the year the story will be written.”

Iowa hopes that story includes a victory over a Badger team softened by the Big Ten East powerhouses.

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong, right, is starting to deliver on his athletic promise in his senior season.

Vs. Nebraska, Nov. 25

It’s easy to imagine the race for the West coming down to the final game, as if there isn’t already enough incentive when the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers tangle.

Nebraska checks in at No. 20 in the coaches’ poll this week after toppling Oregon 35-32 last Saturday. The maturation of senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong has been the story in Lincoln, and that would be a welcome sight after bouts of poor decisions and turnovers have hampered his first three seasons.

“In big moments, Tommy has been throwing the football away. He protected the ball and he’s also taking what the defense gives,” Jackson said.

“They’re using Tommy as an athlete, too, so you definitely get that dual threat.”

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Armstrong has the West’s top group of wide receivers at his disposal as well, and the defense has looked better than in recent years.

Armstrong told reporters there are no secrets to what it will take to win the West.

“Take care of the ball, win the turnover margin, putting our defense in the right position to succeed and them doing the same thing for us. Just getting stops when we need them and just looking out for each other,” he said.

Nebraska has a soft opening to its Big Ten slate, with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Then comes trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State, a home date with Minnesota and, eventually, that Black Friday showdown in Iowa City.

The Hawkeyes will be waiting, intent on learning from the jolt they suffered at the hands of NDSU. As in Iowa’s other big games, its fate may depend on Beathard simply outplaying the opposing quarterback. But there are myriad other details that need to get better as well.

“Those little kind of errors that we can do better, things that we can do better and we've seen our guys do in practice, you have to carry that to the game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think we did a really nice job of that for two weeks, but last week, it wasn't just terrible, but enough of those, and it affects the game, especially if you play a good football team, and it'll be the same way the next nine ballgames.