Iowa Football

Iowa football vs. Wisconsin breakdown: Pregame analysis, prediction

This looks like a low-scoring game

No. 16 Iowa hosts Wisconsin this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazettte)
No. 16 Iowa hosts Wisconsin this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazettte)

A closer look at Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference football game between No. 16 Iowa (5-2) and Wisconsin (2-2) at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City (2:30 p.m, FS1).

Iowa offense

Did Spencer Petras finally turn a corner?

The Iowa quarterback struggled mightily in the first quarter of last week’s win over Illinois, but started hitting throws in the second and ended up with a career-high three touchdown passes. The redshirt sophomore has been very inconsistent all season, but this performance was highly encouraging and should give him and his team a lot of confidence moving forward.

You can only imagine the Hawkeyes offense with the passing game hitting on all cylinders. Iowa got Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith involved last week, with Smith-Marsette picking up a pair of TDs: one receiving and one rushing.

Tight ends Shaun Beyer and Sam LaPorta both had their first career receving touchdown. Iowa put together an almost perfectly mixed offense against the Illini: 204 yards rushing, 220 passing. That’s called balance.

Defenses have been stacking the box and trying to take away or at least slow down Iowa’s rushing attack. If Petras can truly emerge as a throwing threat, that certainly will help Iowa’s rushing game.

Iowa averages 32.3 points per game, which ranks second in the Big Ten. And don’t forget about the wildcat, which has been used more and more in games, with Tyler Goodson taking the snap from center and either keeping it or handing it off.

Iowa defense

Davyion Nixon. The Hawkeyes junior defensive tackle was announced this week as a semifinalist or finalist for three major national defensive player awards. He’s been something, the Big Ten leader in tackles for loss and sacks.

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But it hasn’t been just him. Zach VanValkenburg, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin have been a very good defensive line that has improved all season. Nick Niemann leads Iowa in tackles from his weakside linebacker spot. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson have been solid young guys at middle linebacker, and Dane Belton has found a home at cash.

The defensive backs have been good, not allowing many over-the-top passes, an Iowa staple. This group got scored on twice early against Illinois, then shut the Illini downs, allowing the offense to get untracked in a 35-21 victory.

Iowa is third in the Big Ten in points per game (17.3), third in total defense and rushing defense and fourth in passing defense in the league.

It gave Wisconsin a 4-4-3 defensive look last season. Will be interesting to see what defensive coordinator Phil Parker has up his sleeve this year.

“Obviously we know they are a program that wants to run the ball,” Niemann said. “If you want to be able to beat those guys, you’ve got to be able to stop the run. So that was a different approach we had to it last year.”

Wisconsin offense

The stops and starts of the season certainly have been a detriment to the Badgers offense.

Wisconsin put up 45 points in its opener behind a nearly flawless performance from freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, took two weeks off because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team and rolled Michigan for 49 points. But the last two games, with a canceled game against Minnesota in between, have seen Wisconsin score just one touchdown and 13 points. The Badgers turned the football over seven times in those games.

There hasn’t been one dominant running back as there usually is for Wisconsin, though freshman Jalen Berger seems close to becoming one. He had 15 carries for 87 yards last week in a loss to Indiana.

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Wide receiver has been a sore spot for the Badgers as well, with injuries hitting this group hard. Danny Davis has been in and out of the lineup and is doubtful for Saturday’s game, according to Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst.

Chryst, by the way, revelealed this week he has relinquished play calling duties to assistant coach Joe Rudolph.

“There was a lot of time spent in the offseason as we’re getting ready for (the year) where you weren’t able to do all the, in my opinion, necessary homework and preparation where your time needed to be spent,” he said. “I feel like I’m still in a position where I can truly help and assist, but I thought that there comes a time where you’ve got to be a little bit careful of (considering) ‘What is your job?’ It still starts with the whole team and the program, and (I) didn’t want to compromise there and shortchange another. I think those are some of the thoughts that went into it.”

Wisconsin defense

Name a category, and this defense ranks tops in it in the Big Ten.

Scoring defense? Check, 12.3 points per game. Total defense? Check, 229.3 yards per game. Rushing defense? Check, 72.3. Passing defense? Check, 157 yards.

Wisconsin defensive coodinator Jim Leonhard’s philosophy is to stop the run, and his guys certainly have done that against everyone, including Iowa. The Hawkeyes have rushed for just 343 yards in Leonhard’s four years, including a 3.2-yard-per-carry average.

There is little doubt Wisconsin will do everything it can to stop Iowa’s backs and make Petras try to beat it. Linebacker Jack Sanborn leads the Badgers in tackles, with linebacker Leo Chenal second.

It’s a group approach, as Wisconsin doesn’t have any defensive player close to the leaderboard in the Big Ten in tackles per game.

Final thoughts

Wisconsin has won four in a row against Iowa, seven of the last eight meetings and nine of the last 12. But the Badgers have lost two games in a row this season.

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Its offense has been woefully inconsistent and just plain bad the last two games. Iowa has gotten consistently better all around in this difficult season and is on a five-game win streak.

Both teams have terrific defenses, so this could be a low-scoring game. I’ll go with a few points being scored but not a ton.

Prediction — Iowa 23, Wisconsin 17

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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