The conference season is finally here, and with that, the Hawkeyes play host to #18 Wisconsin to kick things off. The Badgers are fresh off a loss against newly ranked #25 BYU, but have a chance to start fresh and put their best foot forward on their quest to win a third consecutive Big Ten West title. This game, while always important to both fan bases, is especially important this season, as the winner of this game should have an inside track to Indianapolis.
To get a better idea of who Wisconsin is this season, we talked to Jake Kocorowski from Bucky’s 5th Quarter, SB Nation’s excellent Wisconsin Badgers blog. In our Q&A, we asked what got into the Badgers in Week 3 against the Cougars, what playmakers we can expect to see on offense other than Jonathan Taylor, and what Wisconsin fans think of the current state of the rivalry with Iowa.
Max Brekke: Let’s get it out of the way now - the Badgers lost to BYU this past weekend for their first regular season loss since October of 2016. What were the Cougars able to do last weekend to take advantage of Wisconsin, and will the Badgers be able to fix these issues heading into Saturday?
Jake Kocorowski: I felt BYU punched Wisconsin in the mouth on both sides of the ball, and the team was dazed for a bit. Against the Badgers’ offense, the Cougars utilized a lot of motion prior and during the snap to throw off the players’ assignments. That included faking a jet sweep look that gashed UW’s unit for two 40-yard plus runs by Squally Canada (#CollegeFootballAllNameTeam). It was an uncharacteristic performance to say the least, one that many of us covering the team were surprised by.
Offensively, Wisconsin shot itself in the foot with penalties and mistakes. A false start on a 4th-and-1 turned a potential conversion into a turnover on downs during a third quarter that had the potential to turn into points. Alex Hornibrook threw a really bad interception that led to a BYU touchdown.
I do think their mistakes are correctable, and so do the players that I spoke with on Wednesday. With a lot on the line on Saturday night--namely the frontrunner for the Big Ten West division AND any remote chance of Wisconsin making the College Football Playoff (see: they have to run the table the rest of the year)--I think Wisconsin will have a greater sense of urgency this week.
Max: Everyone knows about Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s phenomenal running back. Who else will the Badgers utilize as playmakers on offense this Saturday against Iowa?
Jake: Hornibrook is a good quarterback, and I’ve said it all along that if he keeps his turnovers down, Wisconsin’s offense could be spectacular. At wide receiver, you have to look at A.J. Taylor, Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis. Taylor leads the team in receptions and has made some fantastic catches and Pryor showed he could be a game-changer during fall camp, though he has not been utilized as much in the past two games outside of a jet sweep. Davis will be playing his second game back from suspension and has a unique skillset of bringing down contested 50-50 deep passes. Redshirt freshman tight end Jake Ferguson (yes, he’s Barry Alvarez’s grandson, and yes, drink when they bring that up on Saturday night) has become a solid outlet on third down. Seven of his eight receptions have moved the chains, with five of those coming on third down.
Wisconsin’s offensive line returned all of its starters from a year ago--including three All-Americans and a freshman All-American--but I’m wondering how they’ll match-up against the Iowa defensive line on the road.
Max: On the defensive side of the ball, Wisconsin appears to be pretty dinged up, particularly at linebacker. Who is expected to miss Saturday’s game, and will it have a major effect on how Wisconsin is able to defend against the Hawkeyes’ offense?
Jake: Really the major contributor at linebacker that is questionable is redshirt senior Andrew Van Ginkel with a right leg injury--though it would be a huge loss for the defense entering Iowa City. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard told us reporters on Wednesday that Van Ginkel. an outside linebacker, has been limited in practice this week so far, so it will be interesting to see if he finds time on the field this weekend. Van Ginkel is arguably one of the top, if not the top, playmaker on Wisconsin’s defense who can disrupt opponent’s aerial attacks with pass rush as well as playing in coverage. Against BYU, Wisconsin really could have used that skillset more to help counter the Cougars’ offensive scheme.
If Van Ginkel does not suit up, Zack Baun has been a bright spot opposite him, but Tyler Johnson, Christian Bell and Noah Burks would have to step up in a huge manner.
Max: Wisconsin will win if ______. Conversely, they will lose if _______.
Jake: Wisconsin will win if they win the battles up front with the respective lines. If the Badgers can run the ball, it will open up a multi-dimensional offense that will not have to depend upon Hornibrook to beat an opponent (though he played pretty darn well in the Orange Bowl last year). On the defensive side of the ball, same story. Do not allow the Hawkeyes to get a run game and put pressure on Nate Stanley to make errant decisions--and preferably less positive results from Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
UW will lose if they allow pressure to get to Hornibrook and they give away the football. Jonathan Taylor already has two lost fumbles this season, continuing a trend from last year where he lost more than a handful. You simply cannot, and it’s a terrible football cliche, but you simply cannot turn the ball over on the road in such an environment as Kinnick. If Fant has a huge game, that will likely lead to an Iowa win.
Max: The all-time series between these two teams is pretty close, but Wisconsin has had the edge of late, having won five of six games dating back to 2010. What do Wisconsin fans think of the state of this rivalry? Do they view this as a heated rivalry, or is this just another game to Badger fans in 2018?
Jake: I think Wisconsin fans still hold this rivalry in high regard. Yes, Wisconsin-Minnesota is the “main” one, but UW and Iowa are the two programs in the Big Ten West that have gone on to represent the division in the conference championship game since the new alignments (I forget which programs were in the Leaders and Legends to this day). Both teams feel similar in physicality, offensive scheme, and even have significant recruiting battles against one another (with Iowa bringing in some notable kids from Wisconsin of late).
From the players I spoke with today, they’re trying to keep even keeled and not to overhype the game so they stick with their mantra of playing their “one-eleventh” on the field. Make no mistake though, they had the Heartland Trophy out on display yesterday after practice from what the media saw. It means something.
Max: Prediction time - who ya got?
Jake: *Sigh* This has been tough. I feel like Iowa could just go crazy and put up three straight touchdowns and run away with it, especially with the magic and atmosphere of a home game inside Kinnick at night. However, I think Wisconsin rebounds. Last week, UW was so uncharacteristically flat that I feel they’ll come out with more energy. Some of the players noted after the game on Saturday how their goals are still in front of them. If that includes winning the Big Ten West, the conference and moving to the CFP, they need to beat a tough Hawkeyes team on the road. I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating in saying that whoever wins this game will win the West.
It’s close and tough, but Rafael Gaglianone redeems himself from last week with a 51-yard field goal to win as time expires. Wisconsin 20, Iowa 17. Again, would not be surprised if the Hawkeyes go crazy and atone for their efforts at Camp Randall last year, but I’ll stick with my pick here.
Huge thanks to Jake for joining us for a Q&A. Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes beat the Badgers by a thousand. For more excellent coverage of Wisconsin athletics, check out Bucky’s 5th Quarter and @B5Q on Twitter. Go Hawks.