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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Wisconsin

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The battle for the Heartland Trophy returns to Iowa City.

Iowa v Iowa State Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

Iowa’s battle against 18th ranked Wisconsin for the Heartland Trophy under the lights of Kinnick Stadium may be the biggest home game of Iowa’s season, but almost every fan and prognosticator expected the matchup to loom even larger in the national consciousness. Afterall, Wisconsin was supposed to be undefeated. The BYU Cougars, coming off their worst season in over a decade in which they were manhandled by the Badgers 40-6 at home, shocked Wisconsin by winning in Camp Randall and ruining Wisconsin’s dreams of a perfect season.

BYU was certainly aided by Wisconsin kicker Rafael Gaglianone missing the game-tying field goal, but the most surprising element of Wisconsin’s loss was the WAY that BYU was able to fell the Badgers. During Wisconsin’s (nearly) uninterrupted reign atop the Big Ten West, they have beaten team after team through tough, physical play at the line of scrimmage. BYU surprised Wisconsin by showing they were capable of matching, and indeed, surpassing Wisconsin’s physicality, and Iowa will need to follow suit in order to win the Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2015. Wisconsin is a proud program who just lost its first non-conference home game since 2003 and now has to travel to Kinnick Stadium for a game that may ultimately decide the winner of the Big Ten West. Wisconsin may have slept on BYU, but they won’t be sleeping on Iowa this week, and the Hawkeyes will need to elevate their play in order to improve their record to 4-0.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Can Iowa FINALLY solve Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense?

Since adopting the 3-4 defense in 2013, the Badgers have consistently stifled Iowa’s offensive production. Iowa has scored 20+ points against Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense only once (2014) and mustered only 66 yards of total offense against the Badgers in 2017, with its only points coming from two defensive touchdowns by Josh Jackson. Even Iowa’s 2015 victory in Madison saw the Hawkeyes score only ten points against the Badgers defense.

While Wisconsin’s defense is commonly labeled as a 3-4 scheme, the Badgers will certainly give the Hawkeyes multiple looks on Saturday. Wisconsin occasionally drops into a 2-4 defense, moves its versatile linebackers all over the field, and uses exotic blitz patterns to confuse and overwhelm opposing defensive lines. Wisconsin pressured Nate Stanley with ease last season

and occasionally feigned the blitz with a linebacker and dropped them into coverage, resulting in a poor read from the quarterback.

This article does a great job discussing how BYU used the jet sweep and pre-snap motion to force Wisconsin’s defensive front out of position, but another way for Iowa to potentially attack Wisconsin’s 3-4 is to deploy packages with multiple tight ends. Shifting two tight ends onto one side of the center can create an unbalanced line that can potentially overwhelm Wisconsin’s balanced front, allows tight ends to engage outside linebackers in the running game, and frees up two linemen to double-team the nose tackle. Star Badger linebacker and Iowa native Andrew Van Ginkel remains questionable for Saturday night, and his absence would certainly make it easier for Iowa’s blockers to handle the Badger’s attacking defense. Iowa’s passing game also greatly benefits from the heavy use of two tight end sets, as Fant and Hockenson have clearly established themselves as two of Iowa’s best pass catchers over the past few years. Both players will need to make plays both in the running and passing game for the Hawkeyes to finally establish a semblance of an offensive rhythm against the Badgers.

2. Strength on Strength: Can Iowa’s defensive front overpower Wisconsin’s offensive line?

Pundits have been singing the praise of Wisconsin’s offensive line since the conclusion of the 2017 season, and with good reason. Tyler Biadasz, David Edwards, Michael Deiter, and Beau Benzschawel were staples on pre-season all-conference teams and have played a significant role in the success of star running back Jonathan Taylor. Athlon ranked Wisconsin’s offensive line as the best in the nation this August.

However, Iowa’s defensive line has shown signs that it might be similarly dominant. The Hawkeyes boast a robust eight-man rotation along the line, have two of the conference’s best edge rushers in AJ Epenesa and Anthony Nelson, have a good mix of size and speed along the interior, and are led by a wily veteran and disciplined run-stopper in Parker Hesse. Iowa has already racked up 12 sacks through three games, which is especially impressive considering they tallied only 29 sacks through thirteen games last season. Wisconsin’s run-heavy offense will involve their massive linemen (the unit has an average size of 6’5, 320+ lbs.) attacking Iowa’s defensive front early and often, and the D line will need to frequently rotate players to prevent them wearing down. Whether the Hawkeye line can generate consistent penetration into the fourth quarter against both the run and the pass will go a long way to determining how well they can contain the Badger offense.

3. Can Nate Stanley outplay Alex Hornibrook?

The table below displays the passing statistics for Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley and Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook:

Stanley? Or Hornibrook?

Player Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A TD Int
Player Cmp Att Pct Yds Y/A TD Int
QB1 43 68 63.2 595 8.8 3 2
QB2 50 79 63.3 583 7.4 3 2

Any guess which quarterback is which? Hornibrook (QB1) has a slightly higher average yards-per-attempt than Stanley (QB2), but the statistics of the two players are otherwise nearly identical. Each quarterback showed fantastic promise at various points in 2017 (Stanley against Iowa State and Ohio State, Hornibrook in the Orange Bowl against Miami), and neither looked particularly competent against the other player’s defense in their last matchup. Stanley struggled to establish a rhythm with his receivers though the first two games of 2018, while Hornibrook is still adjusting to the suspension of his top wideout Quintez Cephus.

Iowa and Wisconsin play remarkably similar styles of football, each program relying on its power run game, strength in the trenches, disciplined defense, and conservative style of play to eventually grind its opponent into dust. That being said, the 2018 Heartland Trophy game may ultimately be decided by which quarterback can make one or two important plays with his arm while simultaneously limiting his mistakes. Wisconsin’s defensive pressure overwhelmed Stanley in 2017, resulting in four sacks, an interception, and lost fumble, and one of the worst quarterback ratings a Hawkeye starter has posted in a long time. Jonathan Taylor should give Wisconsin the edge at running back, so Stanley will need to outduel Hornibrook for the Hawkeyes to have a shot at pulling the upset this weekend.

For many Iowa fans, it was the Hawkeyes’ win against Wisconsin in 2015 that truly made them believe that team could be something special. While a loss against Wisconsin doesn’t preclude the 2018 team from achieving similar levels of success or eliminate them from contention for the Big Ten West crown, a win against the Badgers would go a long way towards achieving both of those goals. An unexpected loss to BYU has shown Wisconsin the stakes of this game; here’s hoping the Hawkeyes are aware of them as well.