Better Know An Iowa Football Opponent 2010: Wisconsin Badgers (Part Two)

The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it?  By looking ahead to next year, of course.  So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored).  Next up: BADGERS BADGERS BADGERS.

In case you missed it... PART ONE

WISCONSIN BADGERS (@ Iowa City, IA; October 23, 2010)

OK, what should we expect when Wisconsin doesn't have the ball?  Wisconsin's biggest issue on the defensive side of the ball is up front, where they go from having one of the fiercest defensive lines in the conference to one of the most uncertain.  DE J.J. Watt is the only returning starter from a year ago, and while he was good (44 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks), he wasn't as good O'Brien Schofield (62 tackles, 24.5 TFL, 12 sacks) and expecting him to be as good as Schofield this year is probably folly.  Even in a league loaded with star defensive ends (Adrian Clayborn, Brandon Graham, Cameron Heyward, Ryan Kerrigan), Schofield stood out as one of the best.  Watt is expected to be joined by Louis Nzegwu (10 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks) at the other DE spot, with Jordan Kohout and Patrick Butrym slotting in at DT.  Kohout is a redshirt freshman making his college debut, while Butrym was a rotation guy a year ago (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks).

The picture is a little rosier at linebacker; they lose their leading tackler (Jaevery McFadden), but return next three top tacklers at the position, including Chris Borland, the Big Ten's Freshman Player of the Year in 2009.  Borland only started half the season, but he racked up impressive numbers (54 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 fumbles recovered, and 5 forced fumbles) and was a major bright spot for the Badger defense. He only got a starting opportunity because Mike Taylor got injured in the Iowa game; prior to that he was Sconnie's leading tackler (46 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble) and if not for the injury, it may have been him, not Borland, getting tabbed as the Big Ten's FPOY. The other starting linebacker is expected to be senior Culmer St. Jean, who made 12 starts a year ago and had solid numbers (63 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sack, 1 INT).  Get used to seeing Borland and Taylor suiting up for the Badgers for a while: they're both only sophomores, so they're going to be the lynchpins of the Wisco defense for the forseeable future.

Jay Valai make you go boom.

The secondary also projects to be one of the stronger aspects of the Badger defense since the return guys at three of four spots with significant starting experience.  Leading the way is SS Jay Valai, a poor man's Bob Sanders; he's a brutally heavy hitter whose coverage skills can sometimes be a bit suspect.  Last year he had 51 tackles (3.5 TFL), five passes defended, and an interception, good enough to get him second-team All-Big Ten honors.  His partner at the free safety spot figures to be the only new(ish) face in the defensive backfield, Aaron Henry.  Henry's seen action in each of the past two seasons, with 38 tackles in '08 and 18 tackles a year ago.  The Badgers do have a pair of experienced corners in Devin Smith (55 tackles, 11 passes defended, 2 INT in '09) and Niles Brinkley (38 tackles, six passes defended, 2 INT in '09).  Valai's earned preseason All-Big Ten honors from virtually every publication and Smith got the same nod from Phil Steele.  The Badgers should have a solid secondary, though there may be some gaps to exploit in the middle of the field since neither Henry nor Valai are terribly consistent in pass coverage.

The Badger defense isn't going to be a detriment in 2009; it's not as if they're going to need to rely on that experience-laden offense to put up a ton of points each week in order to win.  They have some quality starters back in Watt, Borland, Taylor, Valai, and Smith; if the new faces that come along are at least competent, they should again have one of the 4-5 best defenses in the league.

And just how "special" are the special teams?  Pretty damn special, actually -- or at least they have the potential to be pretty damn special.  The Badgers have one of the best returning punters in the Big Ten in Brad Nortman (42.0 avg in '09, 35.7 net avg, with 17 downed inside the 20); he's no Ginger Cannon, but he's still pretty good.  K Philip Welch regressed slightly last year (going from making 20/24 FG in '08 to just 17/24 in '09), but he remains one of the better options at that spot in the Big Ten.  Injuries hampered David Gilreath and the Badger return game a year ago; he had just 117 punt return yards and a TD on 21 attempts -- and 86 of those came on a single punt return (for those of you scoring at home, that would be 31 punt return yards on the other 20 attempts... which is not good). Gilreath is also the primary kick returner, logging 615 yards on 26 attempts, good for a 23.7 avg.

Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen?  One of the less-reported aspects of Kirk Ferentz's run as Iowa head coach is his good record in rivalry games.  Mind you, that's rivalry games of the Big Ten variety; his 5-6 mark against Iowa State is, of course, a point of some contention.  But against Minnesota (8-3) and Wisconsin (6-5) he's done rather well.  The 6-5 mark against Wisconsin isn't that impressive on the surface, but the two losses he suffered in '99 and '00 occurred when Wisconsin was one of the best teams in the Big Ten (a 19-6 overall mark, plus a Rose Bowl win) and when Iowa was one of the worst (4-19).  That's not to excuse or ignore the losses (we're not going to go all jNW and pretend that games from our "dark ages" never happened), but simply to highlight the obvious talent disparity between the programs at that point.  From 2001 onward the talent gap was noticeably smaller, which led to a substantial change in the results: Iowa went 6-3, with all three losses coming by a touchdown or less (and, curiously, all but one win coming by 10 points or more).  Even the self-combusting Iowa squad of 2006, just a week removed from the infamous "fat cats" loss against jNW and playing a Wisco squad that ultimately went 12-1, managed to keep the margin of defeat to a measly three points and had opportunities to take the lead in the fourth quarter.

One of the most remarkable stats in the recent years of the Iowa-Wisconsin series is the second half scoring.  Since 2002, Iowa has outscored Wisconsin 104-30 in the second half over the course of all eight games and a whopping 94-13 in the six wins over that span.  From 2002-2005, Iowa didn't let Wisconsin score a single point in the second half of their games.  Wisconsin has had a halftime lead four times during that span; three times they wound up losing the game.  For whatever reason, Ferentz & Co. nearly always seem to make some very sharp halftime adjustments when they play the Badgers.  

There are a lot of strength vs. strength match-ups in this game (Wisco's offensive line and running game vs. Iowa's defensive line, Wisco's passing game vs. Iowa's secondary, Iowa's passing game vs. Wisco's secondary), but the true deciding match-up may be the one that pits Iowa's (perceived) biggest weakness (the offensive line) against Wisco's (perceived) biggest weakness (the defensive line).  Both units are question marks for their respective teams; it's not a stretch to think that the unit that coheres faster this season will give their team a decisive advantage in this game.  Still, the match-up of Iowa's highly touted defensive line against Wisconsin's behemoth line (and Clay) is also going to be critical; until getting injured last year, Clay was absolutely gashing the Iowa defense.  As we've previously noted, Ohio State and Michigan also both had considerable success against Iowa's run defense.  Iowa's run defense went from 9th nationally in '08 to 34th nationally in '09; their woes against OSU, Michigan, and Wisconsin were a big reason why.  

Still, it's impossible to overlook the success Iowa has had against Wisconsin over the last eight years.  They've won six of those games, often quite convincingly, and they had multiple opportunities to win in both of the games that they dropped, despite playing ostensibly far better Badger teams.  Wisconsin is just a team that Iowa matches up with very, very well.  Last year, a substantially similar Iowa team spotted a substantially similar Wisconsin team an early 10-point lead, then rattled off 20 unanswered points to win on the road.  Here's guessing that Clayborn & Co. treat last year's early struggles against Clay and the Badger running game as a challenge and that Stanzi, DJK, and McNutt have some success against a slightly overrated Badger secondary.  Most pundits have tabbed Wisconsin as one of the most likely teams to knock off Iowa in 2010 and that's certainly possible if the Iowa defense can't slow down the Badger running game.  We think the added bulk along the defensive line will enable them to do just that and if the game rests in Tolzien's hands... well, we like Iowa's odds.  Iowa by 7-10.

So how's the rest of their season gonna play out?  According to the majority of the punditocracy, the Badgers are either the best (or second-best) bet to end Ohio State's reign of terror atop the Big Ten, mostly because of all the talent they have returning on offense.  That analysis seems to conveniently overlook the fact that Wisconsin will be breaking in a fair number of new faces on the defensive side of the ball, particularly up front.  Considering the other three primary contenders in the Big Ten all return significant portions of their defense and that a strong defense has been the bedrock of Big Ten champions since, oh, just about forever... well, we're just a touch skeptical about the Badgers' championship credentials.

Still, the fact that they drew a rather favorable schedule won't hurt their chances of having a big season.  The Badgers open up the slate with a late night road game at UNLV and follow that with three consecutive home games against San Jose State, Arizona State, and Austin Peay.  This non-conference schedule is, to put it mildly, an utter embarrassment. UNLV is a consensus pick to finish second from the bottom in the MWC.  San Jose State is a consensus pick for the cellar of the WAC.  Arizona State is a consensus pick to finish second from bottom in the Pac 10 (hapless Washington State remains the easy pick for cellar-dweller status in that league).  And Austin Peay is -- fuck, they're Austin Peay; who really gives a shit?  (For the record, the Governors went 4-7 a year ago, third from the bottom in the OVC.)  West coast games have been a thorn in the side of Big Ten teams for years, but UNLV is garbage: they played three Top 25 teams (TCU, Utah, and BYU) in '09 and got housed by 20 or more points in every single game. Wisconsin may not be quite as great as the pundits think, but they're certainly a top 20-caliber team.  Bielema could coach this game from the craps table at Casino Royale and the Badgers would still win by 20.  Arizona State might be tricky in Tempe at night, but a day game in Madison in mid-September?  That's a recipe for Sun Devil disaster. Throw in laughers over San Jose State and Austin Peay and if you think the Badger love is upsetting now, wait until the end of September: it'll be utterly out of control.

Things do get tougher in October: road games with Michigan State and Iowa are sandwiched around home games against Minnesota and Ohio State.  The Sparty road game is particularly interesting; the home team has won the last five games in that series, including MSU's comeback from an 11-point deficit with barely nine minutes to play two years ago.  MSU's also an intriguing test because they figure to be the first decent team that Wisconsin will have played all year; how sharp will the Badgers be after fattening up on a full slate of pushovers and sadsacks?  The Minnesota sets up well from a scheduling point-of-view as a potential trap game: it's a week after the possibly tough MSU game and a week before the massive OSU game in Madison.  On the other hand, Bielema has never lost to the Gophers (and Wisconsin has owned that rivalry lately; they're 16-4 against Minnesota over the last 20 years) and, well, the Gophers suck. 

This is a nice microcosm of what tends to happen when Minnesota plays Wisconsin.

Assuming the Badgers overcome their typical road woes in East Lansing, they should be 6-0 (and likely ranked in the top ten) when Ohio State comes to town on 10/16.  Curiously, while Ohio State has been Iowa's kryptonite, the Badgers have been surprisingly successful against them in recent years; since 1999, Wisconsin is 4-5 against the Buckeyes.  Even stranger is that three of those four wins came in Columbus, although that doesn't help them much this year (the game's in Madison).  A year ago, the Badgers dominated the game in terms of total offense (they outgained OSU 368 to 184) and time of possession (42:47 to 17:13), but were unable to do much on the scoreboard with that dominance.  They probably could have at least kept it close with that sort of dominance if not for the offense gifting Ohio State a pair of pick sixes and the special teams conceding a kick return touchdown.  Which begs the question: if Wisconsin can eliminate those mistakes, could they beat the Buckeyes this year?  Possibly, although we still find it hard to bet against the Buckeyes.

After the Iowa game (a second-straight loss for the Badgers, per our projections), Wisco gets a bye week to prep for the stretch run.  November kicks off with a road trip to Pudue, followed by a home game against Indiana, a road game at Michigan, and a home game against Northwestern.  This is where things get interesting; on paper, Wisconsin is better than all of these teams and aside from the burning tire fire that was their 2008 campaign, Bielema-led teams at Wisconsin typically beat teams that they're supposed to beat.  But what will their mindset be after back-to-back losses to OSU and Iowa, losses that will likely crush their hopes of a Big Ten title (and potentially a BCS bowl as well)?  They suffered back-to-back losses to those same teams a year ago, only to rebound and rattle off three straight wins before falling to jNW in their Big Ten finale.  So it's certainly possible that Bielema could get them to shake off that disappointment and make a run at another 10- or 11-win season.  

And yet... Purdue is one of the dark horse teams in the Big Ten for a reason; they have the talent to upset the Badgers in West Lafayette (assuming the football gods don't continue to crush them with injuries) and plenty of motivation to do so after suffering a 37-0 shitkicking at the hands of the Badgers in '09.  Wisconsin narrowly beat Indiana in '09 (just 31-28, though Indiana never had a chance to win or tie the game in the fourth quarter), but lately they haven't struggled much with the Hoosiers; they've won five in a row over Indiana and the average margin of victory was 29 ppg before last year's close call.  Michigan pulled off an improbable upset of Wisconsin in Ann Arbor in 2008 and they may be good and desperate to get a win at that point of the season.  On the other hand, Wisco's beastly rushing attack does seem tailor-made to run roughshod over Michigan's sketchy defense.  And they close the season with just Northwestern, who beat them a year ago and who owned a 4-2 record against them in the Aughts.  A loss in these four games seems probable, with Purdue or jNW seeming like the best bets to snatch a win.

Still, projecting the 2010 season for the Badgers is difficult since their most difficult games seem lumped together.  It doesn't seem at all improbable that they could drop three in a row to Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue and at that point it's also not hard to see the wheels come tumbling off for their entire season (see: 2008).  But they're also good enough to beat anyone on their schedule; there's no team that clearly outclasses them.  Ultimately, this feels like a 9-3 team so that's what we'll go with, but a game or two variation in either direction wouldn't be at all surprising.

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