This is where the sparks will be made. Wisconsin's front seven has aged like a fine wine and is peaking with six seniors in the group. All four starters on the D-line, including Beau Allen (a 6-3, 325-pound muscle ball), are seniors. Senior Chris Borland is still the leader at middle linebacker. The 5-11, 246-pounder is perhaps the Big Ten's most unique player, with great lateral speed and athleticism. Before he suffered a strained hamstring two weeks ago at Illinois, UW coach Gary Andersen announced that Borland would handle long field goal duties.
Scheme-wise, Andersen brought the 3-4 with him from Utah State. Allen and tackle Ethan Hemer (6-6, 315) make this work because they eat blockers like potato chips. Wisconsin has piled bodies, mainly outside linebackers, on the line of scrimmage to slow running games this season and it's worked. Wisconsin is No. 2 in the Big Ten in rush defense, allowing just 87.57 yards a game. That's down from 128.93 in '12 and 152.64 in '11.
If you want to comparison shop, the Badgers held Northwestern to 44 rushing yards; Iowa allowed 225 against the Wildcats.
Iowa hasn't sustained the rush in the last three games. In their last three games, the Hawkeyes have rushed 25 times for 57 yards in the second half. That’s taken them out of their comfort zone and has caused a second-half malaise where Iowa has been outscored 53-10. This has led to a near 70-30 disadvantage in time of possession against Iowa.
These are losing numbers for the Hawkeyes. Iowa was strong last week running into the boundary (the short side of the field) with tight ends used to block and create a numbers advantage. This is where it's simply body on body and running back Mark Weisman (30 carries, 117 yards the last three games) goes into all-terrain vehicle mode.
There are no absolutes, so you can't just say "Iowa can't run, it can't win." Head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis are aware of the numbers. Can Iowa win with a supplementary running game?
Wisconsin uses a cover 4 shell in the secondary, sometimes sneaking a safety near the line of scrimmage and going to a cover 3, particularly on third down. Iowa is known for the zone blocking scheme, but has it shown enough consistency on the outside zone (the plays that Damon Bullock usually gets) to create conflict for UW's linebackers and safeties? It's not the jet sweep, but if Iowa runs the outside zone with proficiency, Wisconsin's second-level defenders will lose a step.
The Badgers are younger in the secondary (No. 3 in the Big Ten, 197.4 yards a game). Corner Sojourn Shelton is a freshman and free safety Michael Caputo is a sophomore. Arizona State lit up this group for 325 yards. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller was magnificently efficient with a 68.0 percent completion rate and four TDs.
Iowa doesn't have Braxton Miller, who often pulled Wisconsin's safeties to the line of scrimmage because of the threat of his running ability. Iowa QB Jake Rudock has been efficient with his feet, but Iowa is going to have to create holes in UW's cover 4 with play-action passes.
Where can Iowa attack the Badgers' pass coverage? Iowa has shown signs of life at wide receiver the last three games. Kevonte Martin-Manley has returned from the groin injury that sidelined him for the second half against MSU. He caught five passes last week. Sophomore Tevaun Smith has elevated himself to a solid No. 2 receiver, with 11 catches for 109 yards in the last three games.
Iowa tight ends weren't the featured position group they were two weeks ago at Ohio State. The 12 and 13 formations (one RB and two or three TEs) dictated personnel and put numbers in formation that forced an awareness of matchups for the defense. The indecision it created worked beautifully when Iowa's running game thrived. In must-pass mode, the advantage was lost. Obviously, the longer this stays in play this week, the better.
You know running back Melvin Gordon leads the Big Ten in rushing (144.57 yards a game). RB James White is No. 3 in the conference with 96.0 yards a game. The Badgers led the Big Ten and are No. 8 in the nation with 296.86 yards a game. The Badgers changed coaches, but Barry Alvarez is still the athletics director and so grunt football is still the calling card for the Badgers.
Andersen came from Utah State, where his offenses were spread in concepts and lots of option in execution. During the news conference to announce Andersen's hiring, Alvarez basically said, that's nice, but . . . "I don't have any problem with our scheme. I don't perceive us as a spread them out, fast pace, no huddle, one back, five wides (offense). I don't see us doing that because that's not the type of kid we can consistently recruit and we have to remember that. You know what the plan is. It starts with those big palookas up front."
Soak in that part about "the type of kid we can consistently recruit." Therein lies the philosophy of Wisconsin under Alvarez and Iowa under Ferentz. These are philosophies that are sustainable. And so the Badgers are all palooka'd up this year with an O-line that averages 321 pounds and nearly 6-6. This is why the NFL measures arm length. By simply getting out of their 3-point stances, UW O-linemen will occupy enough space for its talented running backs.
Iowa likely will play more 4-3 "over" with the secondary in cover 4. This is the defense Iowa played under Norm Parker and it's probably the Hawkeyes' best chance to slow the run. That puts OLB Christian Kirksey on the line of scrimmage instead of in space with a slot receiver. With the jet sweep being a constant threat with UW, Iowa might align strength to the Badgers' weakside. That will put a lot of run support on the secondary.
Iowa's defensive ends hung on against Northwestern last week, but the Hawkeyes will be vulnerable on the edges against Wisconsin. This week, however, Iowa won't have to sweat the quarterback as run threat. Joel Stave has minus-18 rushing yards this season. Now, the problem will be discipline.
QB Joel Stave tasted the starting job, but missed the last five games with a broken collarbone. The temptation is to dismiss the sophomore as a "game manager." In Wisconsin's biggest test, on the road at Ohio State, the Buckeyes took away UW's running game, holding the Badgers to 104 yards, a season low by a metric mile. Stave and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis kept the Badgers afloat. Stave completed 20 of 34 for 295 yards, two TDs and an interception. With the Badgers out of their comfort zone, Stave gave his team a chance to win (OSU won 31-24).
Abbrederis (43 catches, 752 yards, five TDs) is third in the conference with 107.4 receiving yards a game. The 6-2, 190-pounder has been a frisbee catching dog for Stave. In Stave's 13 career starts, they've hooked up for an average of 5.5 receptions and 99.9 yards a game. In taking away the run from Wisconsin, OSU put all-American corner Bradley Roby in a one-on-one matchup with Abbrederis. He caught 10 passes for 207 yards and a TD. "I think he's one of the best players in the conference," Ferentz said. "He's just a fantastic football player. He's been that way for a couple years. You name it, receiving, blocking, this guy is a football player."
So, Iowa will have to be on guard for a running game ranked in the top 10 nationally and then Abbrederis and TE Jacob Pedersen. Iowa played a soft cover 4 at Ohio State and was picked apart underneath. Last week against Northwestern, Iowa played more man coverage with the corners. Beyond Abbrederis, does Wisconsin have the speed to back Iowa off? It all fits together. UW will want Iowa's secondary in full backpedal. Iowa's secondary will have to play with an eye in the backfield.
Iowa's secondary held up well last week. Because Colter had to hold the ball more often than he wanted on called passing plays, Iowa racked up six sacks, the most in a game since 2008. This series has been interesting when the Hawkeyes have had the D-line to trade punches with UW. This goes without saying but stands in neon lights more than every this week, if Iowa's front four can pressure Stave, that would give the Hawkeyes a peg and a chance to dictate tempo, which has happened in halves the last three games.
Wisconsin didn't "fire" its kicker during the bye week, but it did have a roster move. Junior Kyle French lost his job and said on Facebook that the UW coaches asked him not to come back for his senior year. He was demoted after a 38-yard miss against Northwestern dropped him to 5 of 8 this season (18 of 29 for his career, which is a dismal 62.1 percent). Sophomore Jack Russell will handle most field goal duties, but is 0-for-1 in his career. Andersen said before the Illinois game that Borland would likely take long kicks of around 45 yards. Then, he went out and strained his hamstring, so that's probably a no-go.
UW sophomore punter Drew Meyer has placed 44 punts inside the opponent's 20 during his career. Iowa sophomore Connor Kornbrath has had 28 punts downed inside the 20.
Since his momentous 184-yard, two-TD day returning punts against Western Michigan, WR Martin-Manley has had just three returns for 24 yards. He continues to lead the Big Ten in punt returns with 24.20 on 10 returns. Senior WR Jordan Cotton remains Iowa's primary kick returner (15 returns, 20.93 average), but running back Jordan Cotton was lined up as a short kick returner last week.
Of the coverage units, only Iowa's kick coverage deviates greatly (in a bad way, for Iowa), ranking No. 11 in the Big Ten with 25.78 a return. Wisconsin happens to lead the conference with 25.86 a return.
1) Fake punt embarrassment — A few Hawkeyes remain from the punt return unit that was victimized in 201o. Let's have Iowa free safety Tanner Miller take it from here: "That was the whole start to the era of where we've had trouble with the fake punt. That's the one that really started it all off and one that's kind of etched in your mind forever." Iowa has been fooled by a pair of fake punts this season (Northern Illinois and Michigan State). But yes, Miller is right, this one is etched in a lot of minds forever. Wisconsin marched in for the winning TD in a 31-30 victory.
2) A renewal — As noted, it's been since 2010 that these teams have met. They miss each other. That has added some spice. So has the fact that Wisconsin could be playing for a BCS bowl bid. This is the final season of the BCS, and so, bowls still have a chance to go out and grab whatever school it wants as long as it fits the BCS standings criteria. The Big Ten has put two teams in BCS bowls in 11 of the 16 years the BCS has been around. Wisconsin probably can't afford a loss. At 10-2, it would have a great shot at an at-large berth in the Orange Bowl.
3) West is best — This is the first in what will be a long, long dance for these schools. The rivalry is tied 42-42-2 and is now set up so there will never again be a two-year break. The Big Ten will junk the Legends and Leaders in favor of an east-west alignment next season when it adds Maryland and Rutgers. The east will have most of the blue bloods -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State. The west won't have the tradition-mega-rich, outside of Nebraska, but it will have a tinge of bitterness every week. Iowa will have five games every year that will match it against border schools -- Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern. It's sort of the NFC Central of college football. If you want to call the east the "blue chip" division, perhaps the west is the "chip on the shoulder" division. Iowa and Wisconsin, together, forever. This game begins what should be a lifelong wrestling match for a rung in the west division ladder.
The offense can stay on the field and the defense can get off. Iowa's offense and defense are connected at the cleat. One goes up, the other goes with it and vice versa. Iowa remains among the nation's top 20 (No. 17) in third down conversions, but that has trended down the last three games. Iowa is at 49.07 percent on third down, but is 43 percent in the last three games, including 33 percent (7 of 21) in the second half of those games. On defense in the last three games, Iowa has allowed opponents to convert on third down 51.6 percent of the time (that's 111th in the country in the last three games). Time of possession is Wisconsin's game. The Badgers are 18th in the nation controlling the ball 32:55 in 60-minute games. These number don't mix well for the Hawkeyes, especially if you consider they are No. 116 in the nation with a 2.9-point average in the fourth quarter of games (that number is excluding the Missouri State game, vs. an FCS school).
It breaks loose with a handful of 20-yard plus rushes and the Badgers contain the inside run. Iowa hasn't been a strong perimeter running team, instead moving along to the quick passing game (pass-handoffs, if you will). They've worked, but Iowa hasn't been able to complete drives on quick passing alone. Bullock has had streaks of success gaining the edge on outside zone plays, but it hasn't been a go-to. Wisconsin is fourth in the country with 22 20-plus rush plays, a by-product of Gordon and the jet sweep. Iowa is 15th in the country with just five 20-plus runs against. This might be the great tug-o-war in today's game.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 28, Iowa 20