The Iowa Hawkeyes are officially on a winning streak after taking home a road victory at Purdue last week, following up on a strong showing on homecoming against Northwestern. Now Iowa finds themselves in a familiar place: in contention for a division title, needing some help to get over the hump and staring down the barrel of a showdown with a border rival.
Up this week is a matchup that could determine the Big Ten West with the Wisconsin Badgers. In the words of the wise and sage like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?
So just like every other week (unless, of course, our cohorts at other SB Nation sites don’t get back to us..), we’re taking the butcher’s word for it and getting the inside details on Wisconsin from our friends over at Bucky’s 5th Quarter. We were joined this week by site manager Tyler Hunt to talk about this weekend’s matchup.
Here’s a look at our conversation.
BHGP: Let’s start bigger picture here. It’s been a bit of an up and down season so far for the Badgers. Obviously a rough start capped by back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Illinois that ultimately got Paul Chryst fired. How are Badger fans feeling about the season at this point, do you see any noticeable difference in how games are being played since the departure of Chryst and is Jim Leonhard the guy going forward?
B5Q: Overall, I think Badger fans are very happy with the turnaround under Jim Leonhard. Wisconsin is one bad break in overtime away from being 4-0 under Leonhard. Regardless, the team has looked better in recent weeks and I think the biggest difference has been the energy level from the team and the coaches. It’s clear that this team wants Jim Leonhard to be the “the guy” and they are playing hard for him. I think the rest of the coaching staff wants Leonhard to be “the guy” as well and are hoping to stay on with him going forward. Lastly, it’s clear Jim Leonhard wants to be “the guy” and he’s made it very clear in his pressers and with the emotion he has showed on the sideline. Wisconsin went from Chryst who showed no fire most times to Leonhard who clearly wants to be in this position and prove he’s the right guy to take things over. It’s been fun to see.
BHGP: On the offensive side of the ball, Braelon Allen is a complete superstar who has dominated in virtually every game this year. However, looking through box scores some numbers stand out. Namely, in three of Wisconsin’s four losses, Allen was held under 5 yards per carry (Ohio State being the outlier). The most surprising stat line came against Illinois where he ran for just two yards on nine carries. How have teams been effective in slowing down Allen and the strong Wisconsin rushing attack and are there any themes there the Hawkeyes defense could capitalize on?
B5Q: I think the blame for some of those low outputs falls more onto some other areas than Braelon Allen. Firstly, the play calling was horrendous when Paul Chryst was still the Head Coach. Opposing defenses knew what was coming and it was painfully obvious. That has gotten better in recent weeks now that Chryst is out of the fold. Secondly, the Wisconsin offensive line has not been as good as it has been in decades past. Part of that is injury as I feel like the Badgers have had to role with a different combo of starting five each and every week, and part of that is just being down compared to other years.
Due to the issues with the offensive line Allen has seemed a little hesitant in his rushing attack but I do think they looked their best the last couple weeks and the Badgers are now as healthy as they have been all season. I’m interested to see how the run game looks against this stellar Iowa front.
BHGP: Similarly, Graham Mertz is averaging seven more pass attempts per game in Wisconsin’s losses this year than in the wins. Now, some of that can be attributed to trailing most of the Illinois game, but Ohio State was really the outlier there where the Badgers trailed the whole way but never really opted to throw at a higher rate. But in those games where Mertz has been forced to throw more, he’s completing just 56% of his passes vs. 65% in wins. Is this a case of teams forcing Wisconsin to throw more based on scheme and Mertz being less successful when pressed into obvious passing situations or is there something else at play which Iowa’s stingy defense might be able to seize upon?
B5Q: I think Mertz has thrown more because Wisconsin has changed their scheme up a little bit, which they needed to. Wisconsin’s offense is best when it has a balance in their play calling. They’re going to favor the run most times, but you can’t only throw it 13-15 times a game and expect to win in this age of college football so I think at times it’s been more so by choice. Now, there have been games where its been by force but that’s because in some of those games the run game was non-existent. Overall, I think Graham Mertz has been really good this year and has really improved from where he was last year. We’ll see if that holds up this week but the kid has been playing with much more confidence this season.
BHGP: OK fine, we’ll talk about the other side of the ball. Iowa’s offense is famously bad this season, but has shown some signs of life. A big factor this year has been the quality of opposing defenses. Each of the four losses have come to top-10 scoring and total defenses while the success in recent weeks has come against much more middle of the road defenses. Wisconsin has been somewhere in between there with the 23rd total defense and 24th scoring defense nationally. Throwing out the Ohio State game, because nobody else in the conference has that caliber of athlete, what have teams been successful at when attacking this Badger defense, specifically looking at teams like Illinois and Michigan State that managed 34 points each in those matchups?
B5Q: The Illinois game is a weird one. Wisconsin just seemed like it had no clue what was going on on defense that game and got the doors blown off because of it. That game was the straw that broke Chryst’s back so I wonder if there was more going on leading into that game. I think in both of those recent losses you saw Wisconsin struggle with some good receivers. Illinois has some dynamic players on the outside and Michigan State’s Jayden Reed really gave Wisconsin’s secondary fits. If you have a dynamic wideout that you have to gameplan for I think that can be a tough matchup for Wisconsin. Thankfully for the Badgers, Iowa doesn’t have that. I think to really have success against Wisconsin’s defense you’ve got to be able to test players in the secondary and if you can’t and you rely solely on the run its going to be an ugly game for both sides. If you can hit some passing plays and make Wisconsin respect your passing game then you’ve got a recipe that can put Wisconsin on it’s heels.
BHGP: Alright, prediction time. The line on this one has been all over the map. Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook has this one at Wisconsin -1.5 as of this writing with an over/under all the way down at 36.5. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your prediction for the final score?
B5Q: The homer in me is always going to pick Wisconsin in these matchups. I am not sure how well Wisconsin’s offense will do against this Iowa defense, but I think they’ll find some moderate success. To me, I think whichever defense plays better is going to win this game and I think the Badgers have a little bit of an advantage when that is the case because this offense is horrendous. I cannot believe you have to watch that every single week and this is coming from someone who’s watched three years of Graham Mertz! Anyway, I think it will be a low scoring slugfest as it always is but I think Wisconsin finds a way to move the ball and get some big plays from the defense en route to a 20-13 victory in Iowa City.
So there you have it. The fun ends this weekend in Iowa City for Hawkeye fans and the outside shot at the West title goes down the toilet.
Thanks again to Tyler of Bucky’s 5th Quarter for taking the time to answer our questions. Be Sure to head over to B5Q to check out all their coverage of this week’s matchup for a little different perspective. You can find Tyler on Twitter @TylerLHunt. Bucky’s 5th Quarter is @B5Q.