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Matchup to Watch: Iowa’s offensive line vs. Wisconsin’s front seven

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The Hawkeyes have struggled against the Wisconsin Badgers for the better part of a decade and the issues start up front

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

We’ll use this space to briefly recap last week’s matchup to watch before heading to the this weeks.

Week 1: Rondale Moore vs. the CASH
Week 2: Isaiah Bowser vs. Iowa’s LBs
Week 3: Iowa’s WRs vs. MSU’s CBs
Week 4: Iowa’s rushing attack vs. Minnesota’s LBs
Week 5: Spencer Petras vs. PSU’s passing defense
Week 6: Daviyon Nixon vs. Nebraska’s interior line
Week 7: Iowa’s secondary vs. Brandon Peters

It did not start off well for the Iowa Hawkeye secondary, as Brandon Peters amassed 91 yards passing (7/7) on Illinois first three drives. He added a third down scramble which went for 12 yards. It was early in the second quarter with the Illini leading, 14-0.

Something flipped - mainly field position - and everything which was there for Peters was quickly sealed off. He finished the rest of the game 3/11 and with his butt firmly seated on the bench as Isaiah Washington Williams quarterbacked for much of the fourth quarter.

Iowa didn’t get any interceptions, though. Maybe this week!

Anyways!


The #16 Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2) continued their tear through November with a month-opening win against Illinois and are now tasked with their decade-long foil, the Wisconsin Badgers (2-2). Though the Hawkeyes finished the 2010s just 1-7 against UW, schedule-makers set this as the season finale, figuring the two might be playing for entry into the Big Ten Conference Game. Northwestern had other plans, which are frustrations we don’t need to get into here, considering the Badgers possess plenty of their own.

In the offseason, fellow BHGPer Rob Donaldson put together some impressive work dissecting why Iowa has struggled with Wisconsin. It’s far more in depth than I can go into here so I urge you to watch them in full if you have the time. The first, regarding Iowa’s defense, is certainly relevant but not where my sights are set in terms of what can elevate the Hawks past Paul Chryst and company.

Wisconsin’s defense, which has undergone plenty of structural turnover but amped up in ability, has neutered the offensive flow Iowa had in the series for the first part of Kirk Ferentz’s tenure. Ferentz went 6-5 through 2009, though the first three losses don’t count (kidding), and generally found success on offense as they scored 20-plus points in 8 of those 11 games. Since then, the script has flipped as Iowa met that threshold (20+) in just 3 of 8 games. They’ve tallied just 12 offensive touchdowns and been held to 0 on three separate occasions.

Yuck.

In watching Rob’s second video, something he said stuck out which I often overlook: offensive line play is not something which can be overcome by having a single elite lineman. This is especially true with Iowa’s zone blocking scheme, something Scott Dochterman deep-dived last offseason.

The biggest differential between the first half of Kirk’s tenure with the second was Iowa’s yards/carry. After exceeding 4 YPC in five of these matchups during the aughts, Iowa racked up that number just once since 2008: 4.8 in 2018. Additionally, Iowa has struggled punching the ball in the end zone since then, posting just two rushing touchdowns since 2010, the last of which came in 2014. Yes, it was Jake Rudock.

Pass protection is perhaps the bigger concern, as Spencer Petras has looked generally shaky when faced with any amount of a pass rush. Wisconsin has consistently pressured Iowa’s quarterback, resulting in 14 sacks between 2010 and 2019.

The penetration exists beyond the pass rush, with the least number of tackles for loss being three, in 2010. Delightful.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Wisconsin has not necessarily demonstrated that same efficiency so far this season with only six sacks in four games (nobody has more than 1) and 19 tackles for loss (freshman linebacker Nick Herbig is the guy to watch here, as five of his 11 tackles have been behind the line of scrimmage).

A potential silver lining in this, is Iowa’s development of the wildcat with Tyler Goodson as the “quarterback.” Though it’s been deployed in many of Iowa’s games, it was most effective against Illinois, with 7 runs going for more than 10 yards a pop, including rushes by Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy of 31 and 21 yards respectively.

It’s provided Iowa with the ability to go “11-on-11” when everybody knows Iowa is going to RTFB. It has also deployed jet sweep action (as has Iowa’s standard running game) which can hold linebackers by making them think for a split second.


Iowa’s quarterbacks have struggled their first time starting against Wisconsin so Spencer Petras is going to need all the help he can get:

The work starts up front with the Hawkeyes and excellence in the trenches will allow the burden to be eased off of Spencer Petras, coming off his best game in the black and gold. Iowa will need to execute well because we have seen games where solid run numbers simply weren’t enough as they were foiled by turnovers.

Iowa has used the last month to become the conference’s #2 scoring offense. It would be all for naught if they can’t seal the deal against the Badgers, who have the #1 scoring defense in their four games.

Whether Iowa’s offense was fool’s gold or not will likely be determined by how well they perform on Saturday. The success they find will be in large part by what happens at the line of scrimmage.