What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he (or she) answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Jake from Bucky's 5th Quarter, SB Nation's fine blog for all things Wisconsin.
1) This is the first Big Ten game of the season for both Iowa and Wisconsin, but it feels like a big one. Is this game a de facto Big Ten West championship game? Just how big is this game?
JK: With the Big Ten West division so up in the air and the rivalry between the two schools, the atmosphere's set for a showdown that will most certainly feel like a championship game. When you ask how big this game is, the winner will essentially have huge momentum going into the rest of the conference games and a 1.5 game lead on the other in the division, given tiebreakers. Given both of their favorable crossover divisional opponents (no Ohio State or Michigan State for either team), the winner of this game could be the favorite to take the division.
It won't be the de facto Big Ten West championship game, because both face a seemingly improved Northwestern squad that beat Stanford and Duke, along with having to go to Lincoln to take on the Huskers (Wisconsin travels there next week while Iowa ends the season there) -- but with the physicality of both teams and what's at stake, it will be one of the biggest games of the season.
2) Wisconsin ranks just 55th in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 188 yards per game and 4.86 yards per carry. Those aren't bad numbers, per se, but they are pretty pedestrian rushing stats for Wisconsin, which has tended to have a top-5 rushing attack in the country year after year. What's the deal with the Badger ground game? Is Taiwan the real Deal at running back?
JK: It's a combination of attrition from last year's squad and injuries that's really stunted the growth of the rushing game early on -- though they've improved each week since the Alabama game.
The Badgers had to replace three starters on the offensive line in All-Americans Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan, along with versatile guard-center Dallas Lewallen. It was an experienced group that helped spring current San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon for 2,587 yards last season.
They lost those four players, but also had to deal with injuries to the offensive line and to junior running back Corey Clement. Within the first couple weeks of fall camp, right tackles Hayden Biegel and Beau Benzschawel, guards Ray Ball, Walker Williams and Jon Dietzen (the latter a true freshman who looked the part and was challenging in the two deep) all suffered injuries that put the right side of the line in limbo. That really limited Wisconsin's chemistry on that line, but have since taken steps in a positive direction in the past three games against inferior defenses -- including a 326-yard effort against Hawaii.
Clement's injury really limits their home-run potential, as he had the combination of power and speed to get to the second level of the defense quick but also outrun defenders. He's sidelined 4-6 weeks with a sports hernia injury that he traveled to Germany to take care of (according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Jeff Potrykus). Deal's a redshirt freshman who barrels and bruises his way forward and has made substantial progress with his patience, but still needs to keep his head up and follow blocks. Redshirt junior and former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale is a shiftier back who's speed and agility have helped in the backfield as both a rusher and as a receiver (has 10 receptions on the season -- second on the team), but is a converted cornerback from a year ago. Deal and Ogunbowale complement each other well in a "Thunder and Lightning" type of way, but simply aren't Clement.
3) While the running game has struggled a bit, the passing offense has looked pretty solid. Joel Stave looks much improved from last year's yip-addled form. What's been the secret to his improvement and is it sustainable? Who are the key targets in the Badger aerial attack?
JK: Head coach Paul Chryst's arrival in Madison, and naming Stave the starter early in spring camp really allowed the former walk-on to grow as a quarterback -- and the results have shown early on. Stave, who in the three years previous had to compete for the starting job, was allowed to make mistakes in camp but learn from them. One noted development of his improvement revolves around anticipating where receivers would be, as he's throwing to where they should be. There's a trust between him and his receiving targets, and it's paying off with him completing over 66 percent of his passes and seven touchdown passes. It also doesn't hurt that Chryst is a noted quarterback guru whose mentoring of signal callers have paid dividends.
Whether it's sustainable will be predicated on if he can stay upright with that rebuilding but solidifying offensive line, allowing him to stay comfortable and get in a rhythm. Stave won't be a Russell Wilson or a Scott Tolzien, but under Chryst he has the ability to carry the offense when needed -- especially in the two-minute offense where the Badgers have looked very efficient and have scored points in each of their last three games at the end of the first half.
The Badgers' main receiving targets so far have been wide receivers Robert Wheelwright and Alex Erickson. Wheelwright's averaging nearly 15 yards per catch and already has three touchdowns this season -- tied for the team lead. Erickson, like Stave and Ogunbowale, also a former walk-on, is a key component to this offense, leading the team in receptions.
One major surprise is redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor, who's emerged as a threat in the seam and the middle of the field with six receptions for 98 yards and three touchdown receptions. Everyone, including us at B5Q, noted how redshirt sophomore Troy Fumagalli seemed destined to be the next great, explosive Wisconsin tight end, but Traylor's really stepped up with Fumagalli hobbled by injuries (though he's expected back for this game).
Many are still awaiting to see how much Tanner McEvoy, the quarterback/wide receiver/safety hybrid, is integrated more into this offense. He hasn't caught many passes yet but has been used in a wildcat look -- including one snap he took 32 yards for a touchdown against Troy.
4) How legit is Wisconsin's defense? The numbers are very impressive, but outside of the opener against Alabama, the opposition has not been particularly fierce. Is this really a top-10 defense or are their numbers inflated a bit by the quality of competition that they've been playing over the last few weeks?
JK: Wisconsin's a Top-20 defense, in my opinion, but they were exposed against Alabama. Granted, all teams have issues to work out in their first game, and not having their starting safety and team captain Mike Caputo for the majority of the game didn't help against Derrick Henry and a core of talented players at skill positions, but the Badgers have mostly corrected their flaws that the Tide used to their advantage. Those included gap assignments and missed tackles, though the latter even showed up last week against Hawaii. Against a physical team like Iowa, that could be a difference maker.
To hold three opponents -- all variations of spread offenses -- to only three points total with two shutouts, however, it's impressive. I'll venture to say this upcoming game against Iowa, whose offense uses a fullback, two tight end set, and from what I saw against Pitt and North Texas 11 personnel, could really tell a lot about this defense and its identity this season.
5) Speaking of the defense... who are a few key defenders that Iowa fans should be leery of on Saturday?
JK: Caputo's the leader of the defense for Wisconsin at safety. He directs the defense where it should be (along with those in other position groups), and is a noted run stuffer and a player whose physicality could be the definition of this rivalry.
The most potent group, however, are the outsider linebackers. The "odd couple" duo of senior Joe Schobert and redshirt junior Vince Biegel have been as good as advertised. They've combined for 15 tackles for loss, the most of any pair of linebacker teammates in the nation. Schobert's having a huge year individually, already racking up 9.5 tackles for loss and is in the top five in the nation in sacks with six.
The secondary is a veteran group of multi-year starters. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton have mostly done a solid job this season, with the versatile, 6'6 athlete in McEvoy also starting at safety (along with wide receiver). The defensive line is a younger group with losing Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski, but with all the talk of the "battle in the trenches," defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg have played well and solidified the line.
6) So... Paul Chryst. He's gonna stay put, right? The spinning carousel of coaches in Madison is going to slow down for a bit? Are Badger fans happy to have a native son back and running the show or are they leery about his so-so results at Pitt?
JK: Chryst should stay around as long as Wisconsin wants him, which will be quite a while. This is his destination job -- he's a former player, assistant coach, offensive coordinator and now head coach. If he left, I'd be greatly surprised.
I think the majority of fans knew this was coming once Gary Andersen bolted in the night to Oregon State on Dec. 10 of last year. The results at Pitt were average in his first head coaching stint, and maybe some fans wanted a flashier, "u-rah-rah" coach, but Chryst knows Wisconsin. He knows how to recruit players amidst the academic standards conversations that made Andersen leave town after only two seasons and not even visiting Corvallis before making his decision. He knows the fan base and knows the traditions Wisconsin holds.
7) Where does Iowa rank on the ol' rivalrometer these days? Obviously the Badgers have won four in a row in the series and since 2010 the games haven't had much in the way of stakes behind them most of the time -- how has that impacted the perception of the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry?
JK: The two-year hiatus from 2011 and 2012 was disappointing to say the least due to the conference realignment, but the rivalry still means a lot to the fans, and especially the players. Talking with the team this week, many know the significance of the long standing rivalry. Ogunbowale admitted on Tuesday that though some try to approach it as another game -- it's not.
It's a trophy game, there's a different feel in the air during preparation this week, and there are division title implications this season. Though it's been lopsided at times of late, the players want to keep the Heartland Trophy in Madison.
8) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
JK: I want to see how the Badgers' defense adapt to playing a more pro-style offense that utilizes two-tight ends and a fullback, compared to its last few opponents that spread defenders out. I think Wisconsin can stuff the run but will have to be prepared for Tevaun Smith, the Iowa passing offense and a mobile C.J. Beathard who can create plays, and any trickery Iowa may deploy (Wisconsin gave up a 51-yard wide receiver option pass last week against Hawaii).
The Badgers' offense will have tough sledding against the stout Iowa run defense allowing only 84 yards per game and will also have to account for Desmond King in the defensive backfield. However, I think the passing game will help bail Wisconsin out as long as they can keep the third down conversions to short yardage situations.
The road team's had the advantage of late, with Wisconsin winning three straight at Iowa City and the Hawkeyes taking three of the last four at Camp Randall Stadium. I think home field advantage plays into this year's battle and goes in the Badgers' favor. It won't be a high scoring affair, but I have Wisconsin's defense and Stave stepping up late in a 21-17 win in a slugfest on Saturday afternoon.
Thanks for being good sports, Jake, but I still hope your team gets mollywhopped tomorrow. You can check out the Bucky's 5th Quarter crew at Bucky's 5th Quarter. You can also follow Jake on Twitter at @JakeKoco5Q and @B5Q. The Iowa-Wisconsin game is in Madison, WI on Saturday, October 3, and is scheduled to start at approximately 11:00 am CT, with TV coverage from ESPN.