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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Wisconsin

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The Hawkeyes will need their stars live up to their top billing if they hope to bring the Heartland Trophy back to Iowa City.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Ten years ago, Iowa’s football team entered Camp Randall Stadium and defeated Wisconsin 20-10, the Hawkeyes’ second consecutive win over the Badgers and their 6th victory in the last eight matchups. The Hawkeyes had just regained a one-game lead over the Badgers in the all-time series, and it felt as though Iowa was well on its way to establishing a lasting advantage over their rival to the northeast.

Then 2010 rolled around and this happened:

Wisconsin’s victory over Iowa in 2010 was the moment when the Battle for the Heartland Trophy series turned. The Hawkeyes have notched only one victory over the Badgers since that heartbreaking loss (2015), and though the individual games have mostly remained competitive, Wisconsin has dominated Iowa in the win/loss column over the past decade.

Still, Iowa cannot afford to be haunted by the ghosts of past defeats; the stakes of this year’s Heartland Trophy game are much too high. Iowa and Wisconsin are both serious contenders for the Big Ten West crown, and a win this weekend could allow either program to regain the swagger and they each felt after reeling off a series of impressive early season wins. The winner of the 2019 Heartland Trophy game may very well emerge as the new favorite in the West, while the loser could easily be at risk of watching their season slip through their fingers. If ever there was a time for the Hawkeyes to solve their “Wisconsin problem,” that time is now.

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

1. Can Iowa’s defense force Jack Coan to beat them with his arm?

There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes, and the Wisconsin Badgers having a dominant running game.

Yet even by the incredibly high standards set by Wisconsin’s running backs over the years, Jonathan Taylor still stands out as one of the program’s all-time greats. Eight games into his junior season, Taylor has already eclipsed 5,000 career rushing yards. He leads the conference in both touchdowns (19) and plays from scrimmage (194) and is second in rushing yardage with 1,009 yards on 177 carries (an average of 5.7 yards per run). Taylor has incredible vision, can run through tackles, is deceptively fast, and has noticeably improved catching the ball out of the backfield, making him an even more versatile weapon and allowing him to stay on the field even in obvious passing downs.

Jonathan Taylor is arguably the best running back in college football, and its little surprise that Wisconsin built its offense around him. However, that decision was made easier by the Badgers’ struggles in the passing game. Quarterback Jack Coan has been extremely efficient this year, completing nearly 75% of his passes and posting a 10:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Yet Coan’s numbers are heavily inflated by Taylor’s dominance on the ground, which forces opposing defenses to stack the box in an effort to stop him and allows him to hit open receivers in the flat and target his wideouts in single coverage down field. Despite the huge advantage that Taylor gives his quarterback, it’s revealing that Wisconsin is still reluctant to throw the ball, and ranks 115th nationally in pass attempts and 104th in passing yardage per game. Make no mistake, head coach Paul Chryst wants to put as little pressure on Jack Coan to win games with his arm as possible.

As tempting as it may be for Iowa to play off the line of scrimmage to make Coan’s life more difficult, Taylor’s skills demand that the Hawkeyes make stopping the run game their top priority. Illinois and Ohio State managed to defeat the Badgers in consecutive games, and in doing so have given Iowa the ideal game script for slowing down Wisconsin’s offense. Last season Iowa proved that it could contain Jonathan Taylor, but it’s secondary failed to hold up their end of the bargain, surrendering 205 yards and three touchdowns through the air. If Iowa’s defensive backs can survive on an island and limit the effectiveness of the Badger passing game, the Hawkeyes should be able to keep Wisconsin’s offense in check.

2. Can Iowa contain Wisconsin’s talented linebacking corps?

Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense has given Iowa’s zone blocking scheme some serious trouble in recent years, in large part due to the disruptive playmaking ability of the Badgers’ linebackers. This year’s corps more than lives up to this tradition and might be as impressive as any the Badgers have fielded in recent memory. Jack Sanborn, Zack Baun, Chris Orr, and Noah Burks have all made their share of highlight plays over the course of the season, and their ability to snuff out drives and aversion to playing out of position are major reasons why the Wisconsin defense allows fewer yards per game than any team in college football.

If the Badgers’ linebackers can play up to their potential on Saturday, they could threaten to disrupt every phase of Iowa’s offense. Baun and Sanborn are both excellent at playing the run, while Orr has already racked up nine sacks on the season and established himself as one of the conference’s premiere pass rushers. Given the struggles of Iowa’s offensive line during conference play, it’s reasonable to be concerned that both Nate Stanley and Iowa’s running backs will regularly be swarmed by red jerseys behind the line of scrimmage.

Ohio State managed to stress Wisconsin’s defense and beat its linebackers in space because Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields could threaten the Badgers in both the vertical passing game and the QB run game, giving the linebackers too many variables to account for on every play. Nate Stanley certainly has the deep ball in his arsenal, but unless Iowa’s coaching staff spent the bye week transforming him into Brad Banks, it’s not clear that Iowa can replicate this strategy against the Badgers.

Stanley’s ability to read the defense pre-snap will be extremely important in this game. Whether Iowa relies on its tried-and-true power sets or chooses to spread the Badgers out with their four-wide looks, Stanley will need to diagnose if the linebackers are rushing or dropping into coverage, whether he can use the flat or the middle of the field as a safety valve to beat the pressure, and the best way to change the protection in either a run or pass play to give it the highest chance of success. Iowa’s offense struggles so badly to sustain drives that sack or tackle for loss can kill its momentum. The Hawkeyes need their senior quarterback to make good decisions both with and without the ball in his hands if they want to escape Madison with a win.

3. Can A.J. Epenesa impose his will on the Wisconsin offense?

The Big Ten is loaded with talented defensive linemen, but two players in particular were singled out by analysts this summer as being the most likely to have big seasons in 2019: Ohio State’s Chase Young and Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa. Young has lived up to and even exceeded his hype, racking up 15.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and five forced fumbles en route to one of the most dominant seasons of any collegiate lineman since Ndamukong Suh terrorized the Big 12 a decade ago. Epenesa, meanwhile, has only 3.5 tackles behind the line and, despite consistently finding his way into the backfield, has struggled to get home in his pass rush or run defense while being chipped and double-teamed as much as any player in college football. His gravitational impact on the game has been a major reason why Iowa’s defense has performed so well this season, but his statistics have certainly suffered.

Still, Epenesa has to have been salivating while watching game film of Chase Young’s performance against Wisconsin two weeks ago. Young decimated Wisconsin’s offensive line and finished the game with four sacks, and it felt like he was in the backfield on nearly every play. Wisconsin’s offensive line isn’t bad by any means, but they simply couldn’t withstand an elite talent performing at the peak of his powers who was determined to single-handedly take over the game.

Hawkeye fans have been waiting for that type of performance from Epenesa this year, the kind of showing that leaves NFL scouts salivating and reminds the rest of the college football world what a dominant force he is capable of being. Wisconsin’s offensive line will have spent two weeks game scheming to take Epenesa out of the game, and he is guaranteed to face even more double-teams this Saturday. But at a certain point, elite players have to make plays to justify their status as one of the best in the game. Epenesa’s two strongest performances this year came against Michigan and Penn State, the most difficult teams the Hawkeyes have played to date. With both the Heartland Trophy, Iowa’s championship aspirations, and a decade of futility on the line, don’t be surprised if Epenesa rises to the challenge in a big way this Saturday.