The B1G season is here and opens with potentially Iowa’s biggest test of the year. It has been a long time since the Hawkeyes traveled to Wisconsin and the direction of the two programs have been pretty opposite of each other since then. But the Hawkeyes have a chance to right the ship and start 5-0, earn a top 25 ranking, and look ahead to a very manageable rest of the schedule. So while it is just the first week of conference play, it is a huge week for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
This is the big one this week. Capitalizing on opportunities. Scoring touchdowns over kicking field goals. Iowa has significantly improved its red zone performance this year and is getting touchdowns nearly every time it crosses the 50. They’ve failed on a couple of fake field goals and settled for a few others, but otherwise, when Iowa gets a drive going, they score. Iowa is 12th in the nation, averaging just over 6 points per trip inside their opponent’s 40. That is pretty good.
While against North Texas the touchdowns came just by letting Jordan Canzeri run some basic zone plays, Greg Davis has been dialing up some wrinkles in the red zone that have been very effective -- the trips look against Illinois State, the fake end-around against Pitt, etc. Maybe something else will be in store for tomorrow.
Wisconsin has been pretty good in the red zone, too. On 21 red zone trips, Wisconsin has 15 touchdowns and 4 field goals. The Badgers are averaging 5.46 points per trip inside the 40. One of those failed trips was a missed field goal, and on the other they ran out the clock to end the game against Hawaii last week.
On the other side of the ball, Iowa has done well in the red zone, too. It’s another year and another "no rushing touchdown allowed" streak. Iowa has only allowed five red zone touchdowns in nine trips this year, and two came immediately following turnovers. Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t given up a touchdown in the past three weeks, but against Alabama in Week 1 the Badgers gave up 3 red zone touchdowns. The bigger deal with the Badger defense is that it only gives up 2.53 points when opponents get inside the 40, which is fifth-best in the country (though somehow they have lucked out in that their opponents have only hit 1-6 field goals).
Iowa has too often let teams stick around in games while moving the ball well, but settling for field goals or making mistakes in the red zone (see: the Nebraska game last year). Iowa can’t afford to do anything like that tomorrow. More realistically, though, the Hawkeyes need to absorb blows from Wisconsin, but make them settle for field goals. Their kicker has missed three field goals already this year (though two were from 50+ yards away). Give up field goals, score touchdowns: that’s a winning formula.
Last Year’s Second Half
Iowa went into half trailing 16-3 last year, but then really made it a game in the second half and maybe/probably would have won the game if it weren’t for Joel Stave (who has -32 rushing yards this season) scrambling for 12 yards on a 3rd-and-8 that allowed Wisconsin to run out the clock. Iowa somehow cracked the code on Wisconsin’s defense, which was very good last year. The Hawks did it by pretty much abandoning the run and letting Jake Rudock make plays with his arm and his legs. He threw the ball downfield and scrambled to make first downs and touchdowns. I think C.J. could do that, and do it even better. He’s been a real threat running the ball and showed against Pitt that he can win games when he needs to throw 40 times.
On defense, Iowa played very well. For the most part they limited the Badger rushing attack, and while Stave completed 79% of his passes, he only threw for 139 yards with no touchdowns. The problem is that Wisconsin had Melvin Gordon last year. He had an 88-yard run that set up a field goal. He picked up 35 yards on a short throw on a 3rd-and-long with Wisconsin nursing a two-point lead in the fourth quarter, then a few plays later had a 23-yard touchdown run. Thankfully, there is no Gordon this year, and Wisconsin’s big-play potential has gone way down. The Badger’s leading rusher, Taiwan Deal, has a long run of 17 yards. Their long rush on the year is 35 yards. Stave’s longest pass this year is 45 yards. Their explosiveness statistic (via Football Study Hall’s advanced stats) is 118th in the country.
So if Iowa plays tomorrow like it did last year, it’s a win.
The Stars Align
The 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes don’t have the same overall talent level as some of the Ferentz 1.0 and Ferentz 2.0 teams. I don’t think there are hordes of future draft picks up and down the roster right now. But there are a couple of solid skill players that are making an impact right now, and for Iowa to win tomorrow, they’ll need to once again play really well.
I think this game will be similar to the Pitt game and Iowa will have to pass the ball a lot. Beathard was near perfect last week and had a career day against Pitt, and he’ll need to be every bit as good against the Badgers for Iowa to win. He’s going to need to read the blitzing linebackers and get the call out quick and will probably need to make plays with his feet, if only to avoid sacks. The Badgers will bring the heat with their two talented linebackers. How Beathard handles that may determine the game.
Iowa will need to establish at least a threat of running the ball and Jordan Canzeri has been doing a great job there. He leads the B1G in touchdowns, with 8 (the next highest is 5) and has stepped up with LeShun Daniels limited. If Canzeri can do what he did against Pitt (12 carries for 49 yards and 2 TDs), I think that’ll be workable.
And on defense and special teams, it is the Desmond King show. He’s been a huge difference as a returner and has consistently been Iowa's best defender. Looking at his stats, he is near the top of the conference across the board: tied for first in interceptions, third in kick return yardage, second in punt return yardage and seventh in passes defended. He’s also been very good in run defense and is fifth on the team in tackles. For all of his return yardage, he still doesn’t have a touchdown this year and hopefully that’ll change in Madison.
Okay, the fake field goals are a surprise and the rugby punts are certainly new. But KF has been aggressive on 4th downs in opponents’ territory for a while. Also going for a score at the end of halves/games has been a thing since Greg Davis was hired. It’s one of the first things Davis talked about when he came to town. It has been a slow move to a more aggressive Kirk Ferentz over the past 3 or 4 years; the big difference this year is that it's working.
To keep it working, Iowa needs to stay aggressive. Establish it as their identity. That fake rugby punt is coming and this would be quite the week to pull it out. What will the new wrinkle on offense be? Is there a trick play there? Iowa sat back in base defense against North Texas and mostly did against Pitt. But perhaps this is the week to really get after Stave and make him beat you.
Iowa comes out and throws the ball a lot. Beathard threw it 40 times against Pitt and that number sounds about right. It’ll be a struggle to move the ball consistently, but Beathard will make enough big plays to give Iowa a few touchdowns. The defense will give up yards to Wisconsin, but in classic bend-but-don’t-break fashion, will hold the Badgers to field goals instead of touchdowns and that’ll be the ever-so-slight difference.
Final Score: Iowa 24 - Wisconsin 23
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