Built on bulk: Iowa vs. Wisconsin rivalry a study in offensive line play

Hawkeyes, Badgers have storied histories among offensive linemen

Wisconsin and Iowa lineup for the snap during a NCAA football game at Camp Randall stadium in Madison on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

When the No. 20 Iowa football team heads into Camp Randall on Saturday to face No. 8 Wisconsin, it’ll represent another year in which the Hawkeyes and Badgers play in the game that probably best personifies the Midwest.

Wisconsin’s starting right guard Beau Benzschawel said pretty simply that “we’re the teams that stay most true to our colors with all that stuff — big, Midwestern cornfed kids. That’s how it goes.”

Corn and dairy, of course. You don’t get to average 6-foot-6, 322 pounds (Badgers) or 6-foot-5, 307 pounds (Hawkeyes) across the board if you don’t partake in both. A lot.

These two programs built their foundations on the literal foundation of an offense: the offensive line. It’s a concept every college football team says they subscribe to because running the ball and pass protection are two vital aspects to success. But Iowa and Wisconsin live the concept. Between the two teams, they’ve churned out All-Americans, All-Big Ten players, NFL Draft picks, Super Bowl champions and one of the best offensive tackles to ever play in the league.

They generally don’t recruit against one another — head coach Kirk Ferentz said it’s typically both teams staying in their state — but every once in a while they cross over. Wisconsin starting right tackle David Edwards had to pick between Iowa and Wisconsin for his college choice. He picked the Badgers, in part, because “it’s really cool to be a part of something that is as storied and historic as the Wisconsin offensive line. I think all the guys are trying to uphold that history and that standard,” he said.

Why these two programs? Why here, in the Midwest? Is the farm-kid stereotype true?

“I just think it’s the style of play — similar to Iowa — it’s physical, it’s being able to move the football and control the line of scrimmage with the run game and then being able to pass protect for a five or seven-step drop,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those things that, we get some pretty good backs here that help us out. I think it’s a collective thing of the scheme, the players we have and obviously the coaches.”

That style of play might not be sexy in terms of putting up points or highlight-reel offense — three of the last four matchups didn’t pass 45 total points — but it makes for sound football.

It also makes for quite a few pro football players, who are asked to do exactly what Edwards described in pro-style offenses.

Wisconsin has produced 71 NFL draft picks all-time from its offensive lines, while Iowa has produced 67. Oddly enough, both have put exactly 42 offensive tackles in the NFL through the draft. Since Barry Alvarez took over in Madison, Wis., in 1990 and resurrected a dormant program, the Badgers have had 19 offensive linemen picked. Since 1999, the Kirk Ferentz era, the Hawkeyes have seen 14 offensive linemen taken.

Among those 33 players in this modern era of the rivalry are some guys you’ve heard of — and not just because people pay a little more attention to offensive linemen in Iowa and Wisconsin.

From Wisconsin, Joe Thomas was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns and played in an NFL record 10,363 straight snaps to start his career — the first one he missed coming this season. He’s been to 10 Pro Bowls, and almost certainly is headed for the Hall of Fame.

Out of Iowa, Marshal Yanda has been to six Pro Bowls and won Super Bowl XLVII with the Baltimore Ravens. Bryan Bulaga has been a stalwart on the Green Bay Packers offensive line, helping them win Super Bowl XLV. Robert Gallery, a Manchester native, was the second overall pick of the 2004 draft to the Oakland Raiders, where he played seven seasons.

They’re four recognizable names among dozens of behemoths who have paved the way for elite running backs and made time for several high-caliber quarterbacks.

When it comes to what’s made Wisconsin, in particular, successful, size matters — among a few things.

“Seems like it’s the same story every year,” Ferentz said. “Obviously they’re huge. I don’t know, I haven’t researched it, but I’m guessing they’re probably bigger than most NFL lines. They’re a really big group. They’re physical. They know what they do. They’ve got a system that’s in place and been in place there, and they know what they do, they know what they are, and they do it very, very well.

“You know, and they play with an attitude on top of it. They’re an aggressive group. They’re very physical. As big as they are, they move really well.”

The way the Badgers execute up front affects the Hawkeyes — well, everyone they face, really — defense in several phases. Of course there’s the defensive line, which eats up double teams and absorbs the punishment for that brute size. But beyond that, the Badgers get to the second level.

Linebacker Josey Jewell said this week Iowa will “have to stay focused on our guards and being able to see the backfield set. They might do some fake pullers and do some misdirection with us, so being able to come downhill is going to be very important during this game. We don’t want to be on the second level and create extra gaps, especially during this game.”

His compatriot Ben Niemann said, as linebackers, “we’re going to have to try to attack the line of scrimmage and kind of help get those offensive linemen off our interior tackles.”

Farther back, defensive back Josh Jackson said it forces those in the secondary to be much more vigilant with their vision, and be precise in coverage because Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook is going to have time to throw the ball.

The history and reputation involved ushers in a great feeling of pride in this area for both teams.

Benschawel grew up in a house where his dad, Scott, played on the Badgers’ O-line and impressed upon his son what it meant to be part of that position group. The offensive line carries the flag and paves the way.

“I think it’s just the history that goes into it and the history of knowing that we weren’t great in the past and knowing certain guys brought it up and were the building blocks of the foundation,” Benschawel said. “We’re looked at as the hardest-working guys on the team. You bring that every day so you can gain respect from not only your teammates, but everyone around you.

“We have to keep that moving along and we take pride in that.”

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