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2021 opponent preview: Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin looks to bounce back after their worst win percentage since 2012

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

The Wisconsin Badgers have been a thorn in the Hawkeyes’ side for the better part of the decade so we enter the 2021 season wondering if last season’s shellacking is a blip on the matchup’s radar or a flip of the script in Iowa’s favor. The rivalry turned to Wisky’s favor on the well chronicled-2010 game in Kinnick Stadium.

Throughout the 2010s, Wisconsin became the belle of the Big Ten West ball: 75% win percentage, six New Year’s 6 bowls (2-4 record, including 0-4 in Pasadena), six Big Ten Championship games, and three conference championships. They’ve done it on the back of stellar play in the trenches and an assembly line of elite running backs. To put into perspective just how much of an outlier last year’s run game was (3.9 YPC), it was the lowest they’ve experienced since 2015’s 3.8. They’re often above 5.0, including regular appearances 6.0.

Much like Iowa, though, defense is what carries Wisconsin. Last season was no exception, despite the record, at 17.4 PPG allowed (9th in the country). If Phil Steele is correct - all of his models have them winning the rest with four or the nine generating 12-0 seasons - the Badgers will return to the form they held for the 2010s.

Wisconsin schedule ahead of Iowa

9/4: v. Penn State
9/11: v. Eastern Michigan
9/18: BYE
9/25: v. Notre Dame (Chicago)
10/2: v. Michigan
10/9: @ Illinois
10/16: v. Army
10/23: @ Purdue

It’s genuinely difficult to believe nearly half of Steele’s models have Wisconsin going 12-0, considering their September-ish slate of PSU, Notre Dame, and Michigan. Along with Iowa & Northwestern, all of their toughest games don’t take place on the road. A 7-0 record by the time they face off with Iowa might just give them a chance of dropping one of their last five and still making the playoff, assuming a Big Ten Title.

Apropos of nothing, Iowa’s coming off a bye and possesses a 3-1 record with a rest advantage since 2017.

Three-ish guys

Graham Mertz (QB, 6’3”, 225 lbs, So): I could oversell Mertz’s high school accolades and 20-of-21-5 TD performance against Illinois in the 2020 season opener or I could note that his stats, even including that game, look almost exactly like Spencer Petras’s:

  • Mertz: 61.1%, 6.4 YPA, 9 TD, 5 INT (without the Illinois game, he is 57.0%, 5.8 YPA)
  • Petras: 57.1%, 6.4 YPA, 9 TD, 5 INT

The main reason I’m putting him here is for discussion as to whether his logo is good or not:

/whispers: Kind of a fan!

Jalen Berger (RB, 6’0”, 209 lbs, So): The true sophomore led the Badgers in rush yards (by 1) and yards/carry at 5.0 despite playing in just four of their seven games. He came into Madison via the New Jersey pipeline and immediately won the starting role, though he struggled to see the field due to injuries.

He gets to his top speed quickly and behind Wisconsin’s OL, that means he can run for days if the gap blocking hits just right. In his HS clips, he also shows some ability in the pass game past Wisconsin backs have lacked.

Jake Ferguson (TE, 6’5”, 242 lbs, RS Sr): The returning all-Big Ten performer led the Badgers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns last season and has, somehow, the most accessible highlights of any returning Badger on YouTube.

Against Illinois, he had a career high 7 receptions with 3 going for touchdowns. The Badgers use him all over the field and are especially partial to kicking him out as lead blocker on screen passes. There’s even some stand-up tight end which... /swoon.

Mertz can be hyper-focused on getting him the ball at times. In the matchup against Iowa, Jack Campbell had 3 pass deflections as the Hawks covered him up for a very quiet 3 catches for 14 yards.

Jack Sanborn (ILB, 6’2”, 235 lbs, Sr): At the risk of over-referencing Phil Steele, he notes that Wisconsin has as many LBs in the NFL as offensive linemen and Sanborn fits the bill as the next guy to hit the league. He led the team with 52 tackles, had 4 for loss (T-3), with an interception & forced fumble to boot.

Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard often uses the senior to blitz up the middle, which works on both pass and run plays. It also allows Sanborn to do what he’s best at, as he struggles at times to cover quicker guys out of the backfield.v

Assorted Commentary

How much of 2020 was an outlier?

The Badgers were as impacted by COVID-19 regulations by having their whole QB room fall victim to contact tracing after their Illinois win, which cancelled their next two games. They struggled to get their offense going in three straight losses (Indiana, Northwestern, and Iowa) and struggled moving and scoring the ball in the back half of the season - their final 5 games did not match the points scored (82) in the first two (94).

If their offense returns to the offense we know and hate, they’ll be the force Phil Steele reckons they’ll be. Otherwise, the Mertzening will lead to some frustration in Buckyland.

Can Iowa assert themselves in the run game?

Iowa games are always heavy on ball control but the imperative seems to ramp up when facing Bucky - especially in Madison. The Hawks have struggled in that area until last season’s relative explosion as Tyler Goodson & Mekhi Sargent combined for 157 yards on 24 carries. The Hawk’s 4.0 YPC was just the second time at/above 4 since 2008.

If they want a chance to win, they’ll very likely need to replicate that output.


The other time Iowa averaged over 4 yards/carry was in 2018, a home game derailed by very untimely errors from the Hawkeyes which changed the balance of the game. In 2015, Iowa could not do anything offensively, but won with four takeaways of their own. Heck, Josh Jackson’s two pick sixes kept Iowa in the game for a half in 2017.

All’s to say, no matter what the best laid plans may be, they could be derailed by an inability to maintain control of the ball.