Halfway through Iowa football’s 2023 campaign, it already feels like the fate of the season hangs in the balance. This week’s road game at Wisconsin could very well decide whether the Hawkeyes are afforded the opportunity to play for a Big Ten Championship. A win over Wisconsin does not guarantee Iowa a Big Ten West title, but a defeat at the hands of the Badgers, who are unbeaten in conference play thus far, would make winning the division exceptionally difficult. Given Iowa’s recent struggles to pull out a win in Camp Randall (where Iowa has lost its last three games by a combined score of 89-43), it will likely take Iowa’s best performance of the season for the Hawkeyes to emerge from this contest with a lead in their division.
Here are three key factors to watch for in this week’s game:
1. Can Iowa establish a credible passing game?
While Iowa’s running game came through in a major way in the team’s victory over Purdue last week, there are several reasons to doubt that Iowa can replicate that same performance against the Badgers. Not only does Wisconsin boast a solid rushing defense that is allowing only 107.4 yards per game on the season, but the Badgers have a long history of loading the box to stop the run against Iowa and forcing the Hawkeyes to beat them through the air. While former Wisconsin defensive mastermind Jim Leonhard is no longer calling plays for the defense, the Badgers are still stout enough up front to make things difficult for Iowa’s rushing game, and there is likely enough institutional memory within the program that their tried-and-true strategy for stopping Iowa’s ground game is not likely to be forgotten.
To move the ball effectively, Iowa may have to do something it has done worse than any team in the county this season: complete passes. The Hawkeyes have the lowest completion percentage in the country at only 45.9%, the second worst passer rating and yards per passing attempt statistics, and the third lowest passing yards per game with 129.8. Quarterback Deacon Hill has been erratic at best since taking over for Cade McNamara midway through the Michigan State game and will need to play at a much higher level than what he’s shown thus far in 2023 for the Hawkeyes to escape Madison with a win. It is also reasonable to be concerned about where Deacon Hill’s head is entering this game. He admitted to being too amped up for this first start which led to several wild throws in the first half against Purdue. Will he be able to stay composed and play within the offense in what should be an emotional homecoming as he takes on his former team?
Wisconsin’s pass defense may be the ultimate wildcard in this matchup, as the Badgers have been extremely hit-or-miss in that department this year. On one hand, they are tied for the most interceptions in the Big Ten with eight and second only to Ohio State in passes defended per game with 5.4. Cornerback Ricardo Hallman has as many interceptions this year (four) as any player in college football, and safety Hunter Wohler is a physical enough presence to tangle with Iowa tight end Erick All. On the other hand, the Badgers are allowing more passing yards per game than anyone in the conference with 247.2. If Iowa’s wide receivers, a much-maligned group this season due to their lack of productivity, can avoid shooting themselves in the foot with drops and poor route running, they should have some room to operate against a Badger secondary that has been prone to breakdowns this season.
2. Can Iowa stop the run?
Luke Fickell may have brought in Air Raid disciple Phil Longo to create a more balanced offense for the Badgers, but the engine of the Wisconsin offense is still the running game. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per attempt (5.19) and per game (203.6), as well as rushing touchdowns on the season (15). Although the Badgers lost running back Chez Mellusi for the season to injury, junior Braelon Allen continues to be one of the best running backs in the conference, and sophomore backup Jackson Acker looked capable in relief last week against Rutgers. Furthermore, unlike most Wisconsin teams the Hawkeyes have played in recent years, the Badgers have a quarterback capable of beating teams with his legs in SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai, who has run for more touchdowns this season (4) than he has passed for (3).
Iowa’s rushing defense hasn’t been as dominant against the run as some of recent Hawkeye teams, allowing opponents to run for 131.17 yards per game. Braelon Allen’s size is of particular concern for Iowa’s defense. Listed at 6’2, 240 lbs., Allen is bigger than any linebacker in Iowa’s rotation and runs with a level of ferocity that matches his impressive figure. While Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson have been among the best linebacker duos in the conference in shutting down the run, the Hawkeyes will need to get some consistent push up front against a physical Wisconsin offensive line if they hope to slow down Allen by the time he reaches the second level of the defense. It is a shame that defensive tackle Noah Shannon, who was recently cleared to return to practice amid rumblings of his season-long gambling suspension potentially being commuted, is not likely to be cleared in time to participate in this game. In Shannon’s absence, Iowa will need another strong performance from its defensive line akin to the Hawkeyes’ game against Purdue, in which the unit compiled a whopping 11 tackles for loss. If Iowa fails to slow down the Badger rushing game, it could be a long day for a Hawkeye defense who might find themselves playing a lot of snaps due to Iowa’s inability to string together long drives on offense.
3. Can the Iowa offensive line hold up against Wisconsin’s defensive front?
For years, Wisconsin’s defense has been a thorn in the side of Iowa’s offensive line due to the Badgers’ ability to identify weak points in the Hawkeye zone blocking scheme and overload Iowa’s blockers, correctly betting that the offensive linemen will not be able to adjust to the Wisconsin’s creative blitzing scheme and avoid red jerseys from crashing into the backfield. However, the Xs and Os of this game may be slightly different; Jim Leonhard is no longer with the Badgers to diagnose the Hawkeyes’ weaknesses up front, and Iowa has leaned less on its patented zone scheme and more on gap blocking as the season progresses. However, offensive line play has been a real adventure for the Hawkeyes this year. Iowa has been extremely up and down in run blocking in 2023, and while the Hawkeyes are improved in pass protection over last season, they still allowed thirteen quarterback pressures last week against Purdue. Iowa’s coaches have continually preached that the offensive line is gradually improving. Against Wisconsin, that theory will truly be tested.