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For the Hawkeyes, win this game and stay alive in the Big Ten West Division. Win this game and quickly and quietly (kidding, trophy runs are never this) bus the Heartland Trophy back to Iowa City. Win this game and it’s officially a fun season.
All of head coach Kirk Ferentz’s big seasons — 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2015 — have included victories over Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes and Badgers are the flagships of the Big Ten West. Yes, yes, that certainly doesn’t hold the cachet the Big Ten East holds, but it’s a fact in the West.
The College Football Playoff element is huge in this. The Badgers are going through what Iowa did in 2015. They’re currently on a perfect run in the West and the college football world is picking them apart. They haven’t played anyone, yada, yada. It is a legit fact that Wisconsin’s best win is Northwestern (6-3, No. 25 in the CFP poll). But this is the homestretch for Wisconsin with Iowa, newly remodeled with the victory last week over Ohio State, and Michigan in front of it.
The Badgers’ shield for the critics is staying undefeated. Undefeated Wisconsin will be CFP bulletproof. It’s the getting there.
Meanwhile, Iowa just wants to keep having fun. Can it do that more than one week in a row?
Lots on the line for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC.
The Badgers and their base 3-4 odd front have built staying power in Madison. This will be Iowa’s fourth shot at it since former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda introduced it before the 2013 season. In the three previous games, Iowa has rushed 95 times for 328 yards (3.5 per carry) and just one TD. This year, the Badgers are allowing just 86.3 rush yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry in Big Ten play.
The odd front and unpredictable blitzes from linebackers have clogged Iowa’s base inside zone. Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, in his first season after replacing Justin Wilcox, who’s now head coach at Cal, has guided a defense that’s enjoyed great control against opponents. UW allows just 3.0 yards on first down rushes (third in the league), but that number goes to 4.64 yards on all first downs.
Inside linebackers Ryan Connelly (6-3, 228) and T.J. Edwards (6-1, 244) are blasters, sitting Nos. 1 and 3 on the team in tackles. Safety D’Cota Dixon is UW’s No. 2 tackler. He’s questionable with a right leg injury.
Can Iowa run the ball more than one week in a row? If Iowa can’t block, it can’t run. That sounds painfully elementary, but you’ve watched this season. In 2015, the Hawkeyes did business between the tackles en route to a 10-6 upset at Camp Randall. It won’t be as crisp as last week, but 150 rush yards from either team in this might do it.
Pass defense isn’t just corners, safeties and linebackers. How does a team get after the passer? That’s probably the cherry on top of Wisconsin’s 3-4. The Badgers are second in the B1G with 31.0 sacks. OLB Garret Dooley (6-3, 246) is second in the league with 6.5 sacks. End Alec James (6-3, 272) is tied for fifth with 5.5. OLB Andrew Van Ginkel (6-4, 234 out of Rock Valley, Iowa) is tied for seventh with 5.0.
The Badgers have been fine on the back end. UW leads the Big Ten with 14 interceptions. Strong safety Joe Ferguson leads with four. Edwards has three.
You saw Iowa attack matchups in the passing game last week. Tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson ran crossers and verticals on Ohio State’s linebackers and safeties to the tune of nine receptions for 125 yards and four TDs. Quarterback Nate Stanley, Fant and Hockenson turned a red zone offense that’s been bad this year (Iowa’s red zone scoring percentage of 74.3 is tied for 113th in the nation) into THE factor against THE Ohio State, helping the Hawkeyes to 7-for-7 in red zone opportunities. It was Iowa’s first perfect red zone day since week 2 against Iowa State.
During the bye week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said Stanley had seen more in six weeks than a lot of QBs do in a season. Stanley has shown that fortitude all season. Fortitude is the exact perfect word for a QB who can hang in the pocket and take hits like Stanley does. That will be an element that needs managing this week.
Wisconsin hit New Jersey for another running back and struck gold. True freshman Jonathan Taylor (6-0, 214) leads the Big Ten in average rush yards per game with 152.0 yards a game; that’s more than 50 yards than No. 2, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins (101.6).
Wouldn’t you have liked to have seen the light bulb over former Badgers coach Barry Alvarez when he figured out Wisconsin is really good at producing big people and that offensive linemen should be the foundation for whatever offense Wisconsin wants to be? Wisconsin isn’t Iowa in attack. The Badgers run more power and gap than Iowa, which leans more zone blocking. But this offensive philosophy has stood the test of time and has kept Wisconsin relevant and, at times, mighty for the better part of 30 years.
The numbers say Iowa’s rush defense is below the Hawkeyes’ standard. The 4.24 yards per carry would be Iowa’s worst since 2014. This seems like a make-or-breaker for Iowa vs. UW. The glimmer here is that in Big Ten games, the Hawkeyes have held opponents to 3.93 yards, that’s a little better.
Still, Iowa has its work cut out here.
UW’s Alex Hornibrook doesn’t have the numbers that scream quarterback for a CFP contender, but he does enough to win. This does get into the “game manager vs. quarterback” debate. What wins that argument is 9-0. If your QB is a chair or a table or a VW and you’re 9-0, your QB might be an inanimate object, but you have a QB.
Let’s just call pass efficiency a measure of decision making. Hornibrook is good here. His 158.3 ranks ninth among Power Five QBs. The nine picks aren’t good, but the Badgers have allowed just 12 sacks (so have the Hawkeyes), tied for second in the league.
UW will be missing WR Quintez Cephus. He leads the Badgers with 30 catches and 501 yards (16.7 per reception), but he might be lost for the season with a leg injury. The all-Big Ten tight end race is kind of crazy right now, but UW’s Troy Fumagalli is right there. He leads Big Ten tight ends with 30 receptions for 401 yards.
You might’ve gotten the vapors with all of the Josh Jackson and NFL mentions last week. The fourth-year junior went into the Ohio State game already leading the nation in passes defended and pass breakups. He picked off three passes against the Buckeyes and now leads the Big Ten in interceptions with five. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz questions the NFL draft internet, saying the November draft is never the same as the real one. Either way, just be happy Jackson landed on your planet and is doing his thing.
Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson is tied for third in the league with 6.0 sacks. The Hawkeyes have 20.0 this season and sit seventh in the league.
Both teams have excellent field goal kickers. Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone is 9 of 11 this year after an injury-plagued 2016. Gaglianone has three career 50-yard field goals. Iowa junior Miguel Recinos also is 9 of 11. He hasn’t tried a 50-yarder yet, but Recinos has made 4 of 4 from 40-plus.
Punting probably matters in a mid-November game that might have freezing rain. Both teams are sort of shaky at punter. The Badgers average 38.7 a punt, last in the B1G. Iowa is 10th at 41.04. Sophomore Colten Rastetter might’ve stepped ahead of true freshman Ryan Gersonde with a sound performance last week. Then again, Rastetter also might not be floating in space after being shot into space for his unannounced fake punt rush last week.
Iowa allows just 4.9 yards per punt return. The Badgers are at 6.2. On the strength of perfectly placed kickoffs from Recinos, Iowa is second in the league in kick coverage (16.5). The Badgers are seventh (18.9). No decided advantage there. Returners? UW’s Nick Nelson is sixth in the B1G with 5.73 a punt return. UW wide receiver A.J. Taylor and Iowa running back Ivory Kelly-Martin are fifth and sixth, respectively, in the B1G in kick returns.
With last week’s “polecat” fake field goal, is Iowa becoming one of those pirate special teams outfits? Virginia Tech had that rep when it was a kick- and punt-blocking machine in the early 2000s. Boise State had an element of that. This is as “New Kirk” as it gets.
1. Channeling the weather — It’s going to be mid-30s at game time. There is talk of freezing rain and that is winter’s magic bullet, much more so than snow. This favors Wisconsin probably. The Badgers have had the more sound rush attack this year. As long as wind is manageable, the passing games still should be there, but Wisconsin is made for this.
2. Heartland Trophy — After going 0-for-4 in trophy games in 2014, the Hawkeyes are 9-1 against Iowa State, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The “1” was last year’s loss to Wisconsin, so the Badgers have the Heartland bull (aka Albert the Bull).
3. Road graders — The visiting team has won the last six meetings between these two teams. Wisconsin has won the last four games in Iowa City; the Hawkeyes have won their last two trips to Madison. Wisconsin hasn’t beaten Iowa in Camp Randall since 2007. This is just weird how this has worked.
Wisconsin will win if ... Taylor can rush for 150-plus. That’s game control and that’s the Badgers’ thing, has been since Barry Alvarez was on the sideline.
Iowa will win if ... it can keep Wisconsin’s defense guessing as much as it did Ohio State’s. This is what balance does to a defense. Iowa rushed for 243 and passed for 244 vs. Ohio State.
Prediction: No. 8 Wisconsin 20, No. 20 Iowa 17
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