It seems like just yesterday the Big Ten football season was getting their late start, but here we are, a few short days away from senior day in Iowa City and the regular season finale across the conference. The Iowa Hawkeyes enter their matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers riding a five game winning streak while the Badgers have only managed to play four games all season, losing their last two times out.
Between the COVID-19 cancellations and injuries, things have changed quite a bit in Madison since the beginning of the season so we caught up with Drew Hamm, managing editor of Bucky’s 5th Quarter to get updated on what Iowa fans should expect in this week’s matchup with Wisconsin.
Here’s a look at our conversation.
BHGP: We ran back the preseason expectations earlier this week and you were high on Jack Coan coming into the year. Obviously he’s been out with injury, replaced by Graham Mertz. What does Mertz bring to the table and how does he compare to the veteran Coan?
B5Q: The progression of a classic Wisconsin Badgers quarterback often ends with their senior season being the best, statistically speaking, and with Coan entering his senior year off of a fairly productive junior season expectations were fairly high for him. While he is back in the two-deep, we won’t be seeing him on Saturday unless Mertz gets hurt. So, what does Mertz bring to the table? He has the arm talent to make any throw you’d want from your quarterback. He’s able to scramble for some yards but he is by no means a dual-threat guy. He is extremely confident and seems smart as well. However, he is very much still a redshirt freshman at times. Against Northwestern and Indiana who, like Iowa, have tough defenses he struggled with some of the looks he saw. On occasion, he’ll lock in on a target and not go through his progressions, although he’s getting better at that and sometimes he tries to throw his fastball even on throws that require a little touch.
So, in terms of how he and Coan differ, it’s pretty simple: Mertz is the more talented quarterback but Coan is the savvy veteran who, if we’re keeping it a buck, probably would have beaten Northwestern this year were he healthy.
BHGP: Watching Wisconsin, the running game doesn’t look quite the same and obviously losing a talent like Jonathan Taylor is a big part of that, but here we are on senior day and the Badgers are averaging nearly 200 yards per game on the ground. How has Wisconsin adapted to life without Taylor and what can Iowa do schematically to slow the Badgers’ run game down?
B5Q: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Wisconsin has a running back from New Jersey and he’s pretty dang good. True freshman Jalen Berger has been the Badgers best offensive player in their last two games and was finally rewarded with being named the starter this week. He is a quick, slashing type of tailback that can make things happen in space. He’s carried the ball 45 times for 267 yards (5.9 ypc) and one touchdown this year and, I’m not making this up, has had exactly 15 carries in all three games he’s played.
The Badgers will also mix in third-down back and best blitz picker-upper Garrett Groshek and power back Nakia Watson, but hopefully Berger is the guy getting the bulk of the carries. Now, what Iowa can do to stop the run is a tough question. The Badgers will be starting a backup center, whether that’s Cormac Samson or true freshman Tanor Bortilini is yet to be seen, but there will be advantages for the Hawkeyes to take in the A-gap area. Keeping the Badgers off schedule will obviously help too, especially since the play-calling for Wisconsin has been questionable lately.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin is giving up a league-leading 12.3 points per game. What does this defense do well and what can the Iowa offense, which has never been able to figure out the Badger defense, do to put points on the board?
B5Q: This year’s defense is another stout unit that is leading the country in rushing defense, passing defense total defense and is second in scoring defense. What I think Iowa needs to do is win the battle when Wisconsin brings pressure. The Badgers are still a pretty aggressive unit but have struggled to actually sack the quarterback this year, averaging 1.5 per game which is No. 105 in the nation. While Spencer Petras is no Justin Fields, he’s probably close to Indiana’s backup QB Jack Tuttle who was able to make just enough plays against UW’s pressure to lead the Hoosiers to the victory. This will be an interesting matchup because Iowa’s offense doesn’t look that impressive statistically but they score a ton of points, and I think that’s kinda the way Wisconsin can be hurt. If Iowa hits a couple of key plays when Wisconsin blitzes or is caught out of possession, they’ll be able to score points.
BHGP: Iowa QB Spencer Petras has been the center of attention for Iowa fans with major struggles throughout the season when facing pressure in the pocket. While he pulled together his best half of the season down the stretch against Illinois, most Hawkeye fans are still in wait and see mode. How do you see the Badger defense going about getting pressure on the QB against an offensive line that has kept Petras pretty clean and who should Iowa fans know in the secondary that could be haunting us in our future nightmares?
B5Q: Lol, I did not read all of the questions before answering, so I’ve touched on this a bit in answer No. 3. The Badgers will bring pressure, but they aren’t always able to get home. Iowa’s offensive line will make it even more difficult for the Badgers to sack Petras and might even allow the Hawks to get an extra receiver running a route instead of protecting. I think that Jim Leonhard will really have to get creative and bring some delayed blitzes and bring some guys from the secondary from odd angles, you know, stuff like that.
Wisconsin has only three interceptions on the season and just hasn’t looked that dangerous in picking a lot of passes off this year. If I had to pick a couple of guys who might get one on Saturday I’d say CB Caesar Williams or S Eric Burrell, but I’m just picking names out of a hat at this point.
BHGP: Ok, prediction time. Iowa opened as a 1-point favorite in this one, but most books have now flipped to Wisconsin -1 with an over/under around 42.5. How do you see this one playing out and can Iowa FINALLY take home the Heartland Trophy?
B5Q: I want to pick Wisconsin, I really do, but the offensive struggles over the past two games lead me to believe they may not even score double digits. I’d definitely take the under if I were a betting man and I think the final score will be something dumb as shit like 13-9 Iowa. Just the worst possible game to watch. Now watch, it’ll end up 45-41 Wisconsin or something because I said this.
I think most Hawkeye fans would agree that the ugliest of victories would be a welcome sight at this point in the series. And frankly, an ugly victory in a Wisconsin-Iowa matchup should be a badge of honor.
Thanks again to Drew at Bucky’s 5th Quarter for taking the time to get us up to speed on Wisconsin football. You can follow him on the Twitter machine @drewhamm5. You can also follow Bucky’s 5th Quarter @B5Q and be sure to head over to check out their Iowa week coverage. They’ve got some great content on the matchup, including a podcast featuring our very own Ben Ross that’s worth the listen.