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Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s Offensive Line vs. Wisconsin’s Defensive Front

The big uglies will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game

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NCAA Football: Northern Iowa at Iowa
Low-key difficult finding a good OL picture
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s back.

Big Ten football returns in earnest this week, with the Wisconsin Badgers at the Iowa Hawkeyes being the marquee game. In games between these two, it’s often decided within the trenches.

With that in mind, it could just as easily be decided to go with Iowa’s defensive line against the Badger front. It’d be a matchup of two of the best units in the country. While Wisconsin could assert themselves against an Iowa defensive line which hasn’t been tested in ways the Badgers might this year - pulling lineman, power running - and be the focus of the key matchup, they were not the unit which struggled to get anything going last year.

Not that we need reminding, Iowa gained only 66 yards of offense last year. The offense had the ball for a shade over 21 minutes. And the line was a sieve with four sacks yielded and a longest run of only 9 yards. Removing sack yardage would still put Iowa under 3 yards per carry. It was ugly.

Iowa can ill afford a repeat performance, and there’s reason to think they won’t. Despite losing James Daniels and Sean Welsh, everyone else along the line is a year older, especially sophomore tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs.

On the flip side, Wisconsin is relatively youthful up front in a defense which returns only four starters. Olive Sagapolu has been rock solid for them at nose tackle but those surrounding him have yet to make a huge impact. With only three sacks on the season, they’re well behind the pace they set last year with 42 on the year. Andrew Van Ginkel - one-third of their sack total - is questionable with a leg injury after leaving the BYU game in the first quarter.

If only it were as easy as Iowa having a slight experience advantage up front. As Kirk Ferentz said, “I think the good news is, in this series, we kind of know who they are, I think they know who we are. That’s the good news. Bad news is we know who they are.” I’ll go further and say the worst news is Kirk knows they know who Iowa is, if that makes sense.

Throughout much of this decade, Iowa has rarely changed up their gameplan against the Badgers. In that time, Iowa’s tallied one win in six opportunities. ONE. The most points they’ve scored is 30 in 2010. Could these outputs lead to a slightly different-looking Iowa offense?

If Kirk and Brian Ferentz are going to use the familiarity against Wisconsin, it starts up front and the BYU tape is something Iowa can leverage. There was so much jet sweep action, I lost count in the first quarter. It set up the first touchdown for them and these three plays were hardly the only times they ran them.

In all three instances, BYU was able to put Wisconsin’s line in precarious positions. In the first, it was Wisconsin-like action with the left guard (61) and center (66) pulling to seal the outside.

The second left Wisconsin’s DE out to dry, as everyone except for the left tackle (67) broke right, a play which trusted the runner to scoot by 97.

The third was zone action in the opposite direction of the sweep. This is what they used most often to consistently keep Wisconsin’s defensive linemen on their heels.

Luckily, there’s reason to believe Iowa is inserting more of this into their playbook as Jordan Hansen detailed in this week’s rewatch. (PS: If you haven’t read that yet this week please leave here immediately and do so. Thank you.)

Will Iowa use the same amount of motion as BYU? Unlikely. But if Iowa sprinkles it in throughout the day, it will open up running lanes.

One area where Iowa is also able to exploit Wisconsin would be their use of a 4-man front, which is often their nickel package. Scott Dochterman dove into that this week with some Hawkeyes and unearthed an interesting statistic: “only 50 of Iowa’s 110 offensive plays the last two years came against a three-man front, according to Sports Info Solutions.”

If Iowa is able to convert on 3rd down - big “if” as they went 0-13 last year - Nate Stanley can exploit those nickel fronts with more run by using tempo we’ve seen each of the last two weeks to get to the line.

It’s wild to look back on last year’s box score and determine it wasn’t actually the defense’s fault as they turned Wisconsin over four times and forced eight punts. They just broke as the offense could never sustain a drive longer than five plays.

To come away with a win under the lights of Kinnick, that needs to change. It starts up front.