Following a much-needed, morale-boosting win for the Hawkeyes fan base, this Saturday Iowa will take on its toughest foe yet — the Wisconsin Badgers.
Coming into the week, the Badgers are currently ranked as the number 10 team in the nation, which means it’ll be the first time since 2010 that the Hawkeyes will host a top-10 team at home.
There are many intriguing things to cover in the build-up to this game and I don’t know about you but I’m ready to get right into it!
An Offense Stuck in Neutral
So far this season, the Badgers — much like the Hawkeyes — have struggled to be consistent on the offensive side of the ball. To start off the season, the keys of the car were handed to senior quarterback Bart Houston. However, following a rather poor performance against Georgia State, Houston was pulled in favor of freshman Alex Hornibrook, and the Badgers coaching staff hasn’t looked back.
Despite the move, the Badgers have continued to struggle on offense. Granted, they are coming off back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State. With that said, Hornibrook needs to start playing better, as he’s struggled mightily with accuracy and ball placement the last few games.
At running back, the Badgers feature an electric playmaker in Corey Clement who, on any given play, could possibly take it the distance.
With that said, uncharacteristic struggles on the offensive line have prevented Clement from being able to really get going so far this season, as he’s averaging a somewhat disappointing 4.5 yards per carry so far this season.
This Badgers offense is in need of a serious jumpstart and they’ll be looking at the running game early on this Saturday as a means to get it.
The Badger Defense: This Is as Tough as It Gets
I’ll go ahead and make this as clear as I possibly can: this Badgers defense will be one of the best defenses the Hawkeyes will have faced in recent memory. This unit is deep from top to bottom, and it’s loaded with not only solid contributors but stars as well.
Each year it seems as though the Badgers trot out yet another former walk-on athlete on defense who has somehow turned himself into a star player — insert junior linebacker, Jack Cichy.
Last season, the Hawkeyes’ offense was stifled by a former walk-on linebacker named Joe Schobert — now of the Cleveland Browns — and this season, a large part of the focus will have to be placed on Cichy, as he makes his way off of a 15-tackle performance against Ohio State last weekend.
In the contest, Cichy was used regularly as a blitzer and when you sit down and examine his traits and overall skill set it’s easy to see why.
What makes Cichy stand out is his quickness, ability to recognize a play quickly, and his ability to come up and shoot a gap. On film, Cichy doesn’t strike me as an overall powerful guy. However, he’s a player that I feel most Hawkeye fans can respect, as Cichy and Josey Jewell are very similar in terms of skill set and play style.
As I mentioned earlier, this defense is loaded with talented players on every level.
In the secondary, the two main guys to keep an eye on are senior cornerback, Sojourn Shelton, and junior cornerback, Derrick Tindal, as they’ve been lockdown players on the backend all season — aside from a few exceptions here and there. In addition, senior safety Leo Musso has proven to be a valuable contributor on the backend of the defense; he has the athleticism and instincts to fly to the ball and make splash plays from time to time.
Although I’ve already mentioned Cichy, heading into the season there was a different linebacker that many analysts and fans felt was the best player on the Badgers’ defense: Vince Biegel.
Senior OLB Vince Biegel (right foot) upgraded to questionable this week for Wisconsin's road game at Iowa.— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) October 17, 2016
Call it a hunch, but it seems like players are expecting Vince Biegel back this week vs Iowa— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) October 19, 2016
Earlier in the season during a win over Michigan State, Biegel suffered a broken foot which led many people to believe that he would miss several weeks. However, Biegel has been a participant during practice this week and there seems to be a growing optimism that he’ll be active for this Saturday’s game.
There’s no question that if Biegel is in fact active that he’ll be placed on a limited snap count. Even then, Biegel has the ability to make an impact on the game and it’s yet another name to add to the list of worries for the Hawkeyes.
So far I’ve mentioned guys such as, Cichy, Shelton, Tindal, Musso, and Biegel; defensive end Alex James is another player to watch for. However, I haven’t mentioned a player who has arguably been the Badgers’ best player on defense so far this season and he comes in with a rather recognizable family name.
Runs in the Family
Continuing what has become a family football tradition at the University of Wisconsin, junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, brother of NFL star J.J. Watt and San Diego Chargers fullback Derek Watt, has performed at a high level for the Badgers this season.
What allows Watt to stand out on the field is his quickness coupled with his violent, yet tactical, hand usage and relentless motor. In the Badgers’ 30-6 victory over Michigan State earlier this season, Watt stood out as a real bright spot on the Badger defense and since then he’s been able to apply consistent pressure on the quarterback.
There is still plenty of room for Watt to improve as the season progresses, as he’s still growing accustomed to playing on the edge after playing tight end his first couple years on campus.
This game could very well end up being a tightly-contested slugfest. However, unlike previous years, I think there’s a clear favorite in this matchup, as the Hawkeyes still have yet to find a true identity on offense and the Badgers’ defense is without question one of the best in college football.
If the Hawkeyes want to be successful and keep things close on Saturday, they’ll have to put an emphasis on turnovers, both from an offensive and defensive perspective.
In addition, the Hawkeyes’ approach on defense must be to shut down the run early and force the Badgers to drop back and pass with Hornibrook; when the ball is out of Clements’ hands, consider that a win for the Hawkeyes defense.