After a two-game road road swing through the frozen hellscape that is Minneapolis and the barren wasteland that is Champaign-Urbana, Iowa heads back home to Iowa City to close out the season with a pair of home games against division rivals with a chance to win the West Division title and -- wait, they play Wisconsin first? And the Badgers did what to Nebraska? Aw hamburgers.
Name: University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers
Record: 8-2 (5-1)
Last Game: 59-24 W versus Nebraska (lol nebraska)
Last Game vs. Iowa: Wisconsin 28, Iowa 9, 2013
Ranking: #16 (CFP), #14 (AP), #15 (USA Today)
Passing: Tanner McEvoy: 65-112, 709 yards, 5 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Melvin Gordon: 223 yards, 1909 yards, 23 TDs
Receiving: Alex Erickson: 37 receptions, 480 yards, 3 TDs
Tackles: Michael Caputo, 70 tackles
Tackles For Loss: Vince Biegel, 14.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks
Interceptions: Peniel Jean, 2 interceptions
I considered just writing "Melvin Gordon versus Iowa's run defense" 500 times and calling it a day, but I am a professional blogger and professional bloggers just don't engage in shenanigans like that. No sirree. But seriously: Melvin Gordon versus Iowa's run defense.
Just scroll up and look at Melvin Gordon's stat line again, okay? 1909 rushing yards -- in ten games. 23 touchdowns -- in ten games. He's averaging almost two bills and two and and a half touchdowns every Saturday he steps onto the field. He has over 200 more yards than the second-best runner in the country, Indiana's Tevin Coleman (1678). Fortunately, as we all remember, Tevin Coleman did absolutely nothing against Iowa when he played Iowa, so --
/checks notes, sees that Coleman ran for 219 yards and 3 TDs against Iowa.
Oh. Well, it's not like the No.3 runner in the nation, Pitt's James Conner (1562 yards) had a big game against Iowa, right --
/checks notes, see that Conner ran for 155 yards and 1 TD against Iowa.
In fairness, Iowa had a bad first half against Conner (he ran for 100 yards and a score in that half), but Iowa did a respectable job of keeping him bottled up in the second half. And if you offered me those final stats (155 yards, 1 TD) for Gordon on Saturday, I would take them before your lips finished moving. Because the thought of Gordon, in a near-superhuman run of form at the moment, taking on an Iowa run defense that ranks 46th in the nation and has been gashed by the likes of Indiana, Maryland, and Minnesota so far this year is something that has had me waking up in a cold sweat all week. And if it's doing that to me, a dumb blogger, I can't imagine the level of pants-crapping terror it's inducing in Phil Parker.
Even by Wisconsin standards, this Badger team is incredibly prolific at running the ball. They're averaging 351.2 ypg, third-best in the nation and the best in the non-triple option division (sorry, Navy and Georgia Southern). That's well ahead of the pace for Badger rushing attacks in recent years. Wisconsin has comfortably averaged over 200 rushing ypg in each of the last five seasons, but they've never been too close to 300 ypg, let alone smashing past it like they have this year. It's not just Gordon, either, although he's clearly the biggest threat; back-up Corey Clement has 742 yards and 8 TD on 119 carries this year (which would be good enough to easily make him Iowa's top runner) and quarterback Tanner McEvoy has 498 yards and 5 TDs on 53 carries. Considering what Maryland and Minnesota did to Iowa's defense with quarterback run plays, the thought of McEvoy and Gordon running behind Wisconsin's band of shaved mammoths along the offensive line is, well, not good.
Speaking of McEvoy, that does speak to the one potential weakness of the Wisconsin offense: their passing game. In recent weeks, McEvoy has been used almost exclusively as a runner, while Joel Stave has been tasked with the actual "throwing the pigskin" portion of the proceedings. His season stats aren't really any better than McEvoy's (57/104, 688 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) and he had a well-publicized case of the yips earlier this season. If Iowa can force Wisconsin to air it out, they probably have a chance to win this game. Unfortunately, almost no one has been able to force Wisconsin to throw the ball this season.
The Badger offense gets most of the publicity and it's not hard to see why when you take note out of the insane Tecmo Bowl-on-meth production that Gordon has been getting up to this year, but their defense may actually be even more impressive. Statistically, it's almost peerless:
Total Defense: 244.0 ypg (1st in nation)
Scoring Defense: 15.3 ppg (3rd in nation)
Rush Defense: 96.7 ypg (5th in nation)
Pass Defense: 147.3 ypg (3rd in nation)
Defense F/+: 15.7% (8th in nation)
Defensive FEI: -.541 (11th in nation)
Defensive S&P+: 126.0 (9th in nation)
Because they play in the Big Ten and because the non-LSU portion of their non-conference schedule was wretched, Wisconsin's defense isn't getting a lot of play as one of the best defenses in the country, but... it's one of the best defenses in the country and it's pretty good at suffocating teams from any angle. Want to throw the ball? They can stop that. Want to run? Don't even bother. Only three teams in B1G play have topped 16 points against Wisconsin this season and two of those teams (Illinois and Nebraska) needed garbage-time touchdowns to manage that.
One thing the Badgers aren't especially awesome at? Forcing turnovers. They've recovered nine fumbles and snared six interceptions, which are not particularly stunning totals. In fact, Wisconsin even has a negative turnover margin (-3) and turnovers were a factor in both of their losses (they threw a mind-boggling four interceptions against Northwestern and had a -1 turnover margin against LSU). So if Iowa can get the Badgers to put the ball on the ground or snatch it out of the air, they might have a shot on Saturday...
...except for the fact that this Iowa defense isn't really that impressive at creating havoc and forcing turnovers. They've forced just five fumbles all year (recovering three of them), which ranks them 109th in the nation at getting opponents to cough up the ball. They're better at grabbing interceptions -- 10 on the season (43rd in the nation) -- but doing that requires Wisconsin to actually put the ball in the air, and it's entirely unclear why Wisconsin would do that, unless Iowa can wrangle up the same hypnotist that somehow persuaded Stave and McEvoy to throw the ball so much against Northwestern. The thing this Wisconsin team is really good at (running the ball) is the exact same thing this Iowa team is not great at defending (running the ball). And while Iowa's had a somewhat surprisingly potent offense in conference play (32.0 ppg, 5th best in the B1G), they haven't played a defense like Wisconsin's, either. I mean, there's a path to victory for Iowa on Saturday if Rudock plays lights-out football, the offensive line plays its best game of the year, and the defense is able to force some turnovers... but getting all of that to happen just doesn't seem very likely.