It’s Heartland Trophy week as the Iowa Hawkeyes are looking to bounce back from their loss to the Purdue Boilermakers in a big time road matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers. Much like Iowa, Wisconsin is Wisconsin and seemingly despite who holds the title of head coach, the Badgers are who they are.
But nonetheless, we’ve enlisted the help of our Big Ten brethren at Bucky’s 5th Quarter to learn more about this iteration of the Wisconsin Badgers and get an outsider’s take on how this one plays out. Here are our five questions with Drew Hamm, managing editor of SB Nation Wisconsin site Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
BHGP: We’re just past the halfway point in the 2021 season and the Badgers are sitting at 4-3 with all three losses coming to ranked opponents and a win Saturday puts them in the driver’s seat for the West. A season ago, Wisconsin finished the year at 4-3 and on the outside looking in for a West title. What’s been the difference between this year’s team and what we saw a season ago in Iowa’s first Heartland Trophy win since 2015?
B5Q: Honestly? Not all that much. I think the Wisconsin running game is much better than it was last year, especially in the Iowa game where it was pathetic, and I do think the defense is better this year too. I’m assuming Iowa fans didn’t think the Badgers would start routinely rushing for 56 on 33 carries against them, so this probably isn’t a surprise. The quarterback play is still uneven, the offensive line hasn’t quite figured out how to pass block as a unit yet and the defense, while excellent, is still liable to give up a big play or two over the top.
I thought that this year’s Wisconsin team was going to be quite good and be ranked around where Iowa is now. Obviously that is not the case, but it doesn’t mean that the Badgers are not talented. I think the team, as a whole, is more talented than last year’s team and they’ve been improving a lot over the past month. Iowa will have a tougher time with the Badgers than they did last year for sure.
BHGP: The Wisconsin defense has always given Iowa problems and this year is likely to be no different. The Badgers are giving up just 223 yards per game, but are allowing more than 18 points per game. What’s been the disconnect there and is there any hope for Hawkeye fans that this lowly Iowa offense can find a way to similarly convert limited yardage into enough points for a W?
B5Q: The disconnect there is extremely easy to figure out: turnovers. The Badgers are -7 in turnover margin this season (good for being tied at No. 122 in the nation) and the only reason it isn’t worst in the nation is due to Purdue turning the ball over, like, a million times last weekend. In fact, a bunch of the points scored that are counted against Wisconsin’s defense, didn’t even come when the defense was on the field! Graham Mertz lost a fumble last week that was returned for a touchdown by Purdue and he has also thrown a number of pick sixes. There’s also the simple fact that with all of these turnovers, opposing offenses have often had extremely short fields to work with and even if Wisconsin’s defense keeps them out of the endzone, they are likely still going to give up a field goal.
Wisconsin has asked Mertz to do a lot less in recent weeks so turnovers are down slightly, but the Badgers offense is still criminally lax in how they take care of the football.
BHGP: Perhaps more impressive than the low total defensive number is Wisconsin’s rushing defensive numbers. The Badgers are giving up an absurdly low 53 yards per game on the ground this season. Army found some success rushing for 179 yards and more than 3.5 yards per attempt, as did Michigan as they topped the century mark in a win over the Badgers. Is there anything Iowa OC Brian Ferentz can glean from those performances and how would you go about establishing the run against this defense?
B5Q: I really don’t think there will be much Iowa can do to move the ball on the ground against Wisconsin’s defense. The Hawkeyes have Tyler Goodson and a solid offensive line, so they’ll be able to gain more yards than Purdue or Eastern Michigan, but the UW rush defense has been tenacious this year and their play on first and second down often puts teams behind schedule so there aren’t third and short opportunities to keep possession. Sure, Michigan topped the century mark against Wisconsin (112 yards) but they needed 44 carries to do it and only averaged 2.5 yards per carry.
Perhaps trying some jet sweep action to get the defense moving side to side instead of just attacking downhill might work. In reality, I’d probably just lose a bunch of sleep trying to game plan a rushing attack if I were facing Wisconsin’s defense.
BHGP: On the other side of the ball, it appears Paul Chryst and company have opted to avoid losing the turnover battle by simply going back to pre-WWII days and eliminating the forward pass altogether. That may be wise given Iowa’s propensity to create turnovers through the air, but can the Badgers really win this weekend with Graham Mertz throwing fewer than ten passes again and how should Phil Parker go about slowing down the potent Badger rushing attack?
B5Q: Even with Mertz only throwing the ball eight times last week he still managed to turn the ball over (the aforementioned scoop and score by George Karlaftis after Mertz got sacked, which to be fair, wasn’t his fault. A running back missed their blocking assignment.) so I am not confident that the Badgers will have a clean sheet when it comes to turnovers this week. Mertz will have to throw more this week by necessity. Iowa will force the Badgers into more third and longs and the game should be closer than the game against Purdue, and if UW is losing late they’ll need to move the ball quickly...via the air.
The Badgers rushing attack has steadily improved throughout the season. This isn’t a vintage Wisconsin team on the ground where a Jonathan Taylor or Melvin Gordon or Montee Ball is going to run for 225 yards and three scores, but Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen have both proven capable of gaining tough yards AND breaking off highlight reel plays. Staying gap disciplined against the Badgers will be important for Iowa and completing tackles without allowing Mellusi or Allen to fall forward will be necessary too.
BHGP: Bonus question! How about Bert, huh? That was fun last week? Right? Right?!?
B5Q: That freaking guy. He bad mouths the talent level of his team during the week and then they go out and beat Penn State on the road in one of the worst college football games I’ve ever seen. He is a true riddle wrapped in an enigma dunked in bacon fat.
BHGP: Ok, prediction time. The Badgers have never beaten Kirk Ferentz when the Hawkeyes are ranked higher and the higher ranked team is 13-3 overall in this series over the last two decades. But Vegas thinks it’s time for that trend to flip as the Badgers opened as 3-point favorites on DraftKings Sportsbook with an over/under at 37. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?
B5Q: I’m really not sure what to think, honestly. I’ve been on the “Iowa is a fraudulent top-10 team” train for much of the season because turnovers are often luck-based and not something you can rely on consistently from week to week and Iowa’s offense is stinky. However, Wisconsin’s offense has been mostly stinky this year too and, outside of last week against Purdue which I think was their best game of the season, haven’t really looked the part. We somehow have made it through this whole Q&A without discussing special teams which, I think, leans HEAVILY in Iowa’s favor this year and I could see a muffed punt (which Wisconsin has been outstanding at doing this year smdh) really changing the tide in Iowa’s favor.
I think the Badgers win by something like 17-13 or 20-17. Whoever wins won’t be doing it by more than a touchdown is the only thing about which I’m certain.
So there you have it. We’re all in agreement this game is going to be gloriously ugly and things may well get weird. Here’s hoping the Hawkeyes can come out on the right side of one of those games.
Thanks again to Drew for taking the time. You can follow him on Twitter @drewhamm5. And be sure to stop by Bucky’s 5th Quarter ahead of Saturday’s game. They’ve got a lot of good content up, including a podcast episode featuring our own Ben Ross previewing the game.