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Iowa vs. Wisconsin Football Preview

The Battle for the Heartland Trophy should reveal whether Iowa’s offensive growth is real and sustainable rather than a flash in the pan.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

How quickly things change. Two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes had a 3-4 record and were left for dead by both the national media and their own fans. Two weeks and two consecutive wins over Big Ten West opponents later, Iowa looks like a team reborn. The Hawkeye defense looked as good as ever holding a potent Purdue scoring attack to only three points, while the much-maligned Iowa offense has been shockingly competent over the past two weeks. Despite an abysmal month of October, Iowa is somehow only a game away from tying Illinois for the best record in the Big Ten West.

To keep the dream of a repeat Big Ten Championship appearance alive, the Hawkeyes will need to score another win against a divisional foe in their hated rival Wisconsin, a team that is similarly in the hunt in the West division despite its less than inspiring start. Iowa has performed shockingly poorly against the Badgers in recent years, losing eight of the last ten Heartland Trophy contests and putting up some truly putrid offensive stat lines, including a 156-yard performance in 2021 and a ghastly 66-yard game in 2017. Iowa exorcised one demon last week by beating a Purdue team that has been a thorn in the program’s side of late and scoring a win against Wisconsin would be a similar sign of the team’s mental toughness and continued growth during a season littered with both internal and external challenges.

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

1. Can Iowa’s offensive line withstand Wisconsin’s defensive front?

Iowa’s front five has arguably been the team’s biggest weakness for most of the season, but the unit has shown genuine improvement over the past two weeks. Ever since shifting Connor Colby to left guard and inserting Jack Plumb into the starting lineup at right tackle, the Hawkeye line has looked more comfortable and assertive than they have at any point in the year. The result: 362 rushing yards, a relatively clean pocket for quarterback Spencer Petras to throw from, and the most impressive two-game offensive stretch Iowa has put together all season.

Wisconsin will be an excellent test of whether Iowa’s line has truly turned a corner or has simply benefited from playing two opponents unable to challenge them up front. The Badgers’ aggressive 3-4 defense has consistently frustrated Iowa’s offensive line over the past several years, identifying Iowa’s weaknesses up front and overloading them to great success. Last year, Wisconsin mobbed Iowa’s ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, led by outside linebacker Nick Herbig and his 2.5 sacks. Herbig’s Heartland Trophy performance was a sign of things to come, as the junior edge rusher has blossomed into the Big Ten’s top sack artist this season and has become one of the most feared defenders in the conference. Hawkeye tackles Jack Plumb and Mason Richman had excellent games against Purdue but will definitely be challenged by their matchup against Herbig this week.

Yet as a great a threat as Herbig poses to the Hawkeyes, Iowa’s interior line may have an even more difficult task. The Hawkeyes’ guards and center have suffered from frequent miscommunications this year, and Wisconsin’s creative blitz packages and ability to disguise where the pressure is coming from pre-snap will test these players’ ability to make the correct reads and execute their blocks. Wisconsin’s defense has been buoyed by the return of Keeanu Benton, a 6’4”, 317 lb. nose tackle who is as disruptive as he is massive. If Benton can engage multiple blockers and create lanes for interior rushers, the Badgers will be able to pressure Petras and stop Iowa’s ballcarriers from getting a head of steam. As strong as Iowa’s line has looked over the past two weeks, the unit will need to put together its best performance of the season to score points against Wisconsin.

2. Can either team slow down the opposing rushing attack?

If Iowa’s line manages to win the battle upfront, freshman running back Kaleb Johnson will be called on to play a major role in the Hawkeye offense after a breakthrough 200-yard performance against Purdue last week. Johnson was absolutely sensational against the Boilermakers, running with grace and fluidity, breaking tackles and fighting for extra yardage, and ripping off a 75-yard touchdown that constituted Iowa’s longest play from scrimmage this season.

However, the Badgers are no slouches on the ground either. Braelon Allen, who Hawkeye fans may remember from his 104-yard performance against Iowa last year, has run for 989 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground this year, while backup Isaac Guerendo had a breakout 114-yard game against Maryland last week. True to form, Wisconsin will look to establish the run and rely on its ground game to propel its offense against the Hawkeyes.

While Wisconsin’s rushing offense has been significantly better than Iowa’s over the course of the year (the Badgers are averaging 183.33 yards per game on the ground compared to the Hawkeyes’ 103.56), Iowa’s defense has shown itself to be more stout against the run than their opponent. Wisconsin has allowed four times as many rushing touchdowns as the Hawkeyes have this year (12:3) and have surrendered nearly 200 more rushing yards over the course of the season. The Badgers remain a formidable ground attack but are not the unstoppable rushing juggernaut that they have been in years past, as evidenced by their 24-carry, two rushing yard performance against Illinois. Like Iowa, Wisconsin has an offensive line that has failed to match the high standard of performance fans have come to expect from the program. Iowa’s defensive line has looked dominant over the past two games, and another strong performance from the front four and linebacking corps could give the Hawkeyes a chance to slow down Braelon Allen and prevent the Badgers from dominating the game on the ground.

3. Which team can best get out of its own way?

Iowa and Wisconsin have both suffered from self-imposed mistakes in 2022, particularly on offense. Ill-timed penalties and back-breaking turnovers have gutted potentially successful drives and gifted opposing offenses with favorable field position. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras continues to struggle against the blitz, and while Wisconsin signal-caller Graham Mertz has shown marked improvement this season, he is still susceptible to performances like the disastrous 5-18 passing day he had against Maryland last week.

Penalties and turnovers could make or break this game for either team. Wisconsin has been shockingly bad at avoiding penalties this year; the Badgers average the conference’s second-most penalty yards per game with 65.1, compared to Iowa’s 36.7 yards per game. Entering the hostile confines of Iowa City, Wisconsin will need to play an uncharacteristically clean game to avoid suffering the wealth of false starts and delay of game penalties that regularly plague Iowa’s opponents in Kinnick Stadium. Similarly, the Hawkeyes will need to avoid the biggest factor that has undermined them in recent games against Wisconsin: turnovers. Yesterday’s article outlined how ill-timed giveaways have repeatedly torpedoed Iowa’s chances against the Badgers, a team that has been uncharacteristically gifted at forcing turnovers against a Hawkeye offense that typically values ball control. Given Iowa’s historic struggles to move the ball against Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes cannot afford to squander drives by giving the ball away, nor can they survive gifting the Badger offense the ball with advantageous field position and forcing their defense to spend the entire game on the field against a physical Wisconsin attack. Spencer Petras HAS to play a clean game for the Hawkeyes to have a chance; the Badgers have the second most interceptions in the country with 15, and no player in college football has recorded more interceptions this season than Wisconsin safety John Torchio (five). A repeat of Petras’ turnover-prone performance against Ohio State (three first-half turnovers, including a pick six) could be the final nail in the coffin for Iowa’s hopes of contending in the West.