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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Wisconsin

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The battle for the Heartland Trophy is always a slog, and this year will be no exception.

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

To be the man, you gotta beat the man. If the Iowa Hawkeyes hope to win the Big Ten West, they have to go through the program that has habitually killed their dreams of winning the division. The Wisconsin Badgers have been the class of the Big Ten West since the division was born, appearing in four Big Ten Championships in the past seven years. The Badgers’ dominance has also extended to the battle for the Heartland Trophy, with Wisconsin winning seven of the last nine matchups. While the Hawkeyes managed to snag a victory last season, Iowa enters tomorrow’s game looking to win back-to-back games against Wisconsin for the first time since 2008-2009.

The 2021 Heartland Trophy promises to deliver an offensive lineman-sized helping of the one ingredient the series always has in bunches: physicality. This matchup, which features two teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total defense, will be every bit of the hard-hitting defensive slugfest that Big Ten fans relish and casual fans dread. Iowa may have played uninspired football in its last game against Purdue, but there is no reason to expect the Hawkeyes to replicate that performance given the stakes at play and the team’s desire to turn the page on a deflating loss. As ferocious as this game promises to be, Iowa may end up counting its blessings to have had a bye last week to rest up for it.

Here are a few key factors to watch for in this week’s game:

1. Can Iowa manage to block the Badgers?

The struggles of Iowa’s offensive line have been well-documented this year, but few teams are better equipped to expose these faults than the Badgers. Iowa has frequently wilted against Wisconsin’s front seven in years past; the Hawkeye zone blocking scheme, which tasks linemen with blocking a particular area of the field as opposed to particular man, regularly suffers missed assignments and miscommunication against Wisconsin’s disciplined 3-4 attack which excels at overloading particular areas of the field to confuse Hawkeye linemen and create pressure. Iowa has seen far better offensive lines than the 2021 unit fail to consistently hold their blocks against the Badgers, and there are plenty of reasons to expect trouble in that department again this year.

Wisconsin’s front seven has been phenomenal all season, particularly against the run. The Badgers boast the country’s best rushing defense, holding opponents to the fewest yards per carry (1.87) and per game (53.29 in the sport. This feat, impressive in its own right, is made even more spectacular considering Wisconsin has played two of the five best rushing offenses in the country in Army (2nd) and Michigan (5th). Iowa, which statistically has one of the Big Ten’s worst rushing offenses despite featuring an All-Conference tailback, will likely struggle to find any consistency on the ground against a team averaging 6.57 tackles for loss each game, the third most in the conference.

The Hawkeyes aren’t likely to find any reprieve in pass protection. The Badgers rank 4th in the Big Ten in sacks per game with 2.57 and are particularly skilled at bringing pressure from the outside with linebackers Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig. Wisconsin’s ability to rush off the edge will pose a serious challenge to Iowa’s tackles who have struggled in pass protection all year while also making it difficult for Iowa to execute bootleg throws designed to keep QB Spencer Petras out of a collapsing pocket. Iowa may find itself choosing between using players like Tyler Goodson and Sam LaPorta to assist in pass protection (which would deprive Petras of two proven security blankets) or leaving itself open to drive-killing sacks.

Iowa’s offensive line has shown nothing on film to indicate that it is prepared to handle the Badgers up front, it is possible that the young players along the front five turned a corner over the course of the bye week. If not, the Hawkeye offense could be in for a long day.

2. Can Iowa attack the Badgers using its vertical passing game?

Wisconsin’s passing defense has been excellent this season, holding opponents to the tenth-fewest air yards in the country on a per game basis (169.7). However, the Badger secondary has shown vulnerability in the vertical passing game, something which both Penn State

and Michigan

managed to exploit and which Iowa took advantage of several times in last year’s matchup.

Wisconsin is incredibly stout against the short passing game and has surrendered the 4th fewest number of 10+ yard passing plays in college football this season. However, the Badgers’ defensive metrics get worse the further downfield opponents throw, as Wisconsin has also surrendered four passes of 40+ yards over the course of the year. If Wisconsin’s safeties creep into the box to help stop the run, Iowa must be willing to target the Badger corners and attack Jim Leonhard’s defense deep.

Iowa may not be able to rely on Ihmir Smith-Marsette to burn Wisconsin deep again this year, but the team does have other options it can lean on if it chooses to stretch the field. Keagan Johnson has been dynamic this season and is averaging 31.2 yards per catch, more yards than any Hawkeye player with multiple receptions in a given season has averaged in the past 35 years. Johnson made his mark as a deep threat against Colorado State and created big plays after the catch against both Penn State and Purdue, and must be made a bigger part of Iowa’s offensive gameplan in this matchup. Fellow freshman Arland Bruce IV could also be a threat to burn the Badgers deep, as could Tyrone Tracy Jr., a player who has yet to breakout this season but who made a pivotal play on a deep shot against Wisconsin in 2019.

If Iowa struggles to move the ball on the ground, the Hawkeyes must adjust and look for other ways to attack the Badgers. Allowing Petras to fire away downfield could provide Iowa with the spark it needs to jumpstart its ailing offense against one of the top defenses in the country.

3. Can Iowa force Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz to make mistakes?

Wisconsin will enter Saturday’s game with an offensive gameplan that Nile Kinnick and Alan Ameche would recognize: run, run run. The Badgers threw only eight passes against Purdue while running the ball over fifty times in attempt to lean into its strength on the ground and keep the ball out of the hands of turnover-prone quarterback Graham Mertz. The Badgers have an effective ground game led by running backs Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen which will pose a real test for a Hawkeye defense that has excelled against the run this year (Iowa allows the sixth fewest yards per carry and seventh fewest yards per game in the nation), but has faced few elite rushing attacks and has benefited from playing the conference’s four leaders in passing attempts per game.

Iowa’s defense will look to force Wisconsin into throwing situations by denying them third-and-short opportunities and focusing heavily on the run threat. Expect the Hawkeyes to scrap the 4-2-5 defense in favor of its traditional 4-3 and to heavily feature lineups with three linebackers in addition to Dane Belton at safety. Iowa’s linebackers have been standouts against the run this year and the defensive line has done an excellent job at clogging running lanes all season. Another strong performance in this area could force Wisconsin to choose between repeatedly going three-and-out or putting the ball in the air.

If Mertz does drop back to pass, the Hawkeye defense could be in for a field day. While the Badgers have the seventh worst per-game turnover margin in college football, Iowa boasts the third best. The Hawkeyes lead the nation in interceptions with sixteen through seven games and should be able to feast on a quarterback that has a touchdown:interception ratio of 2:7 and has been prone to fumbling the football throughout his career. The Hawkeye secondary will have to continue its winning ways without interception leader Riley Moss, and Matt Hankins and Terry Roberts will need to bounce back after struggling in coverage against Purdue. But if Iowa can force Wisconsin into a position in which they need Graham Mertz to win the game for them, the Hawkeyes will have a prime opportunity to establish themselves as the clear frontrunners in the Big Ten West.