Iowa football has accomplished a lot over the past decade but wins against Wisconsin have proven hard to come by. While the Hawkeyes have found consistent success against other rivals such as Iowa State, Minnesota, and Nebraska, they have defeated the Badgers in only one of their last ten games, with that win coming during the magical 2015 season. Wisconsin has won the Big Ten West in more than half of the seasons since the division’s inception and has frequently crowded the Hawkeyes out of the chase for the conference crown and reduced them to the level of also-ran.
But like most things in 2020, this is not a typical Wisconsin football team. The Badgers won their first two games in dominant fashion before their season fell apart, and Wisconsin is now 2-2 having suffered through three cancelled games over the course of the season due to the coronavirus. While the Badgers are still a strong running team that excels at eating clock and dominating time of possession, they are not equipped with the dominant ground attack the Hawkeyes are used to facing, nor do they have a superstar running back in the mold of Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, or Montee Ball who is capable of completely taking over a game.
Yet the Badgers remain a dangerous team for the Hawkeyes, in large part due to an exceptional defense that is easily among the most accomplished in college football. The Badgers are allowing opponents to gain fewer rushing yards (72.25) and passing yards (157.0) than any team in Division I, and they rank second in the country in scoring defense, giving up only 12.3 points per game. While some elite defenses thrive on forcing turnovers, Wisconsin has become a master of the three-and-out, relying on sure tackling, phenomenal discipline, and the elite execution of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s scheme to kill opposing drives. Wisconsin may not have a Big Ten Championship to play for this week, but against a proud and dangerous Badger defense, the Hawkeyes must bring their A game if they hope to end their Heartland Trophy losing streak.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can either team get consistent production from their passing game?
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has quite a bit in common with his Wisconsin counterpart Graham Mertz. Both underclassmen entered the season with high expectations befitting their impressive high school pedigrees, both have enough arm talent to be successful Big Ten starters, and both have had extremely up-and-down seasons in 2020.
Petras’ inconsistency was on full display early in last week’s game against Illinois, but the embattled sophomore found a rhythm midway through the second quarter and turned that contest into his best outing of the season. Still, Petras should find it much more difficult to throw on a talented Wisconsin secondary than he did against the Illini, even with Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose opting out for the rest of the season. The Badgers remain deep at cornerback and held up well against a talented Indiana receiving corps last week, and safety Eric Burrell is good enough in coverage to erase any mistakes Wisconsin makes on the back end.
Speaking of receivers, the Badgers may find it difficult to consistently generate offense through the air due to injuries among their pass catchers. Senior wide receiver Kendric Pryor is still questionable to play this week after suffering injuries in the Badgers’ past two games, which could leave freshman Chimere Dike and reliable tight end Jake Ferguson to carry the load. Wisconsin’s best receiver, Danny Davis, is likely to miss his third straight game tomorrow, and his prolonged absence has coincided with a precipitous drop-off in production in the Badger passing game.
Graham Mertz With And Without Danny Davis
Even if Davis and Pryor do take the field on Saturday, Iowa’s formidable pass rush, which has produced 20 sacks through seven games, should still be able to make things difficult for the freshman quarterback, and the Hawkeye pass defense has proven to be extremely effective this season, forcing ten interceptions against nine passing touchdowns allowed.
Jim Leonhard and Iowa DC Phil Parker are both likely to key in against the run and force the opposing quarterback to beat them with their arms. The game could very well be decided by which quarterback is able to best make plays downfield and avoid mistakes, as well as whether a receiver from either team is able to step up and make things easier for a young signal caller facing off against an elite defense.
2. Can Iowa’s offensive line win the battle up front?
For the past several seasons, Iowa’s offensive line and its zone blocking scheme has struggled against Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. The Badger defenders have consistently confused Iowa blockers and disrupted their run blocking assignments, allowing Wisconsin’s linebackers to make plays in the backfield and shut down the Hawkeye running game. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes have struggled in pass protection against the Badgers, resulting in sacks, busted plays, and perhaps must frustratingly, missed opportunities downfield.
Can the Hawkeyes rectify these problems this season? In the second half of last year’s Heartland Trophy game, the Hawkeye offensive line began to gel and more effectively pick up the pressure, allowing Nate Stanley to make several big plays through the air. Given the improvements Iowa’s front five have made in pass protection since last year, there is some reason for optimism that elite pass protectors like Tyler Linderbaum and Alaric Jackson can help keep Petras upright whenever Iowa chooses to attack through the air.
The more pressing question is whether Iowa’s offensive line can win at the line of scrimmage in the ground game. The Hawkeyes have a deep and talented offensive line, but have struggled early in both of their last two games, allowing defenses to consistently win against them when facing eight-man fronts, even when Iowa is in 12 personnel with two tight ends. Iowa can take a lot of pressure off Spencer Petras if it can establish the run early, and it will take superb execution from the offensive line to make that happen.
The Badgers aren’t likely to make things easy. Inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are both excellent tacklers who can consistently generate interior pressure against both the run and the pass, and freshman outside linebacker Nick Herbig can absolutely fly to the ball and leads the team in tackles for loss with five through four games. Meanwhile, the Badgers will rotate 7-8 players along the defensive line and will throw waves of physical and athletic disruptors at the Hawkeyes in hopes of wearing down the offensive line. The strength of the Hawkeye front five has been one of the highlights of the 2020 season, and they will need to live up to that top billing for Iowa to win on Saturday.
3. Can Iowa’s special teams be special?
Iowa has been better on offense than most of Kirk Ferentz’s previous Hawkeye teams this season, but facing one of college football’s truly elite defenses, it’s easy to imagine this contest devolving into the type of low-scoring rock fight that has typified the series. If that comes to pass, Iowa may need its special teams to come through for the Hawkeyes to carry the day. If the offense stalls out, Tory Taylor will be called on to flip the field and prevent Wisconsin from capitalizing on Iowa’s futility. If the Badger defense stiffens in the red zone, Keith Duncan will need to live up to his All-American status and consistently generate points. If given the chance to return a kick, Ihmir Smith-Marsette needs to make the Badgers pay for their lapse in judgement.
One particularly important area to watch is in the punt return game. Wisconsin has only allowed three punt returns this season, but has shown some vulnerability when they do, surrendering an average of ten yards per return. Iowa’s punt rush has been VERY close to getting a block several times this season and seems due to connect with their rush or at least force a rushed kick against the Badgers. If Wisconsin does kick to Iowa’s dangerous return man Charlie Jones, the Hawkeyes may have an opportunity to use special teams to bust the game open.