Iowa Football Preview, Prediction: It’s a B1G West Showdown in Madison
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Earlier this season, Iowa dropped back-to-back heartbreaking decisions. The two one-score losses against Michigan and Penn State could have sunk the season. Instead, the Hawkeyes bounced back.
Wisconsin faces the same task. The Badgers are coming off last weekend’s bye following a pair of road setbacks, one a shocker and another expected.
They’ll find out what they’re made of Saturday when they play host to rival Iowa (3 p.m. CT, FOX). If the flaws seen in their last two contests are chronic, the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes (6-2 overrall, 3-2 Big Ten) will expose them and reclaim the Heartland Trophy.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said on Monday that his team conducted a full analysis of what it was doing from personnel to scheme. Inconsistency in its vaunted running game rose to the top.
In a 38-7 loss at No. 3 Ohio State two weeks ago, the No. 13 Badgers were held to 83 rushing yards on 34 attempts, an average of 2.4 yards per carry. It occurred against one of the country’s top defenses.
The more troubling numbers came a week earlier in a stunning 24-23 loss at Illinois in a game in which they were favored by 30 points. They managed just 3.6 a rush.
So, in the two-game skid, they’ve rushed a combined 77 times for 239 yards (3.1 YPC). All-American running back Jonathan Taylor has carried the ball 48 times for 185 yards (3.9 YPC). They lost four fumbles in those contests.
Chryst saw opponents loading up against the run. The staff looked for ways to counter it during the week off.
“There are some things you can do schematically to help that. There are some things you can do technically. What’s kind of fun about it is we all got to own it. Coaches got to own it. Players got to own it. There are some areas where we can take some steps forward,” Chryst said.
It sounded like Iowa would be looking to present the same challenge.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) must earn it against a Hawkeye defense ranked eighth nationally versus the rush (87.8 YPG). The 10.1 points a game it yields ranks third in the country.
“There’s no doubt that Iowa’s a really good defense. It’s really impressive. They’re getting a lot of production out of a lot of guys. That’s a sign of good players and good coaching,” Chryst said.
The visitors will force first-year starting quarterback Jack Coan into beating them with his arm. Despite throwing a critical interception late in the loss at Illinois, the junior from New York is efficient, completing 74.5 percent of his passes for 1,491 yards and 10 touchdowns against just two picks.
Coan benefits from a talent group of pass catchers. Receiver Quintez Cephus comes into Saturday with 27 receptions for 410 yards and three scores. Fellow wideouts Danny Davis and A.J. Taylor have a combined 39 catches for 363 yards. Tight end Jake Ferguson (21-247-2) is one of the Big Ten’s best at his position, and running backs Taylor and Garrett Groshek together have 36 receptions for 290 yards and four scores.
“Quarterback is playing extremely well, fullbacks are good, and they have as good a running back as we’ve seen during our time here, and we’ve played against some pretty good players, when you talk about (Saquon) Barkley, (Christian) McCaffrey to name two that are doing pretty good right now. This guy is really a tremendous football player,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Wisconsin joins the Hawkeyes in fielding one of the nation’s best defenses. It ranks first in total defense (223.5 YPG), fourth in scoring defense (11.4 PPG) and fifth in rushing defense (84.1 YPG).
The Badgers 3-4 alignment has confounded Iowa through the years. The Hawkeyes were held to 66 yards on their last trip to Madison.
Like Iowa, Wisconsin receives production from players all over the defense. Linebackers Jack Sanborn and Chris Orr lead the way for a fundamentally sound unit.
“Like most teams that are good on win-loss percentage, their defense has been consistently good and certainly no exception this year. They’ve had four shutouts and playing really good defense, giving up the fewest amount of yards in the Big Ten. You’re playing an outfit that’s tough to score against, and then special teams, just they work hard, well-coached, good schemes, and very, very productive, very, very aggressive,” Ferentz said.
A key area on which to keep an eye is how the Hawkeyes’ protect quarterback Nate Stanley. Wisconsin ranks fourth nationally with 4.0 sacks per game. Iowa allows 2.25 a contest, which is 80th in the country.
Michigan and Penn State harassed Stanley, dropping him 10 times on their way to victories. The Wolverines blitzed unmercifully, while the Nittany Lions relied on a dominating front four.
The Badgers disguise pressure well, sending linebackers from all angles. Iowa’s offensive line must identify and execute blocks.
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“They’ll have some stuff for us, but they’ve got two guys on the outside that rush really well in their sub package and strong guys inside, and they have a good blitz package,” Ferentz said.
“I’m not saying these guys are the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it kind of reminds me of the Steelers when I coached in the National Football League. That would be the comparison I’d go to. They have a lot of different ways to just put the pressure on you and they’re kind of subtle with some of the things they do. But they’re impactful, and they made it tough to move the ball and score points.”
TV ANNOUNCERS: Tim Brando, Spencer Tillman and Coley Harvey on FOX.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 93rd meeting between Iowa and Wisconsin. The visiting team has won seven of the last eight meetings.
The teams had met 16 consecutive years from 1995-2010 before the series was disrupted by conference realignment in 2011. Through 92 games, Wisconsin leads 47-43-2. Iowa is 19-27-1 all-time in games played in Madison. Iowa’s last win in the series was a 10-6 victory in 2015.
BETTING LINES: Wisconsin opened as an 8-point favorite at VegasInsiders.com. It bumped up to 8.5 as of Wednesday morning at the Elite Sportsbook in Riverside. The total was at 38.
-Iowa is 3-7 Against The Spread in its last 10 conference games.
-Under is 6-0-1 in Hawkeyes last 7 games overall.
-Wisconsin is 5-1 ATS in its last 6 home games.
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-Under is 5-0 in Badgers last 5 games overall.
WISCONSIN PLAYERS TO WATCH
– Jonathan Taylor, RB – The New Jersey native serves as the current face of the Wisconsin program. He’s been a machine since showing up in Madison as a three-star recruit. How good is he from a historical standpoint? He has amassed 5,180 yards in just 35 career games to join Georgia’s Herschel Walker (5,596), Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (5,091) and Oregon’s LaMichael James (5,082) as the only players to rush for 5,000 yards before the end of their junior season.
– Chris Orr, LB – The senior disrupts opposing offenses. He’s produced all nine of his sacks this season in his last five games. He ranks 6th nationally in that category. He’s also been credited with six quarterback hurries in ’19.
–Jack Sanborn, LB – Iowa worked hard on trying to convince the sophomore from Illinois to become a Hawkeye when he was coming out of high school. We can see why. His 46 tackles lead the Badgers. He also has contributed 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Wisconsin: The Badgers did themselves in with turnovers, two of which came in the fourth quarter of an upset loss at Illinois. They have to take care of the football Saturday.
Iowa: The interior of Iowa’s offensive line must hold up against Wisconsin’s tricky 3-4, where linebackers come at you in a hurry. A lack of protection for Nate Stanley could equal a long day.
-The Badgers have played in a bowl game in each of the last 17 seasons, the longest active streak in the Big Ten and tied for the fifth longest in the FBS.
-The Badgers are 37-11 (.771) in conference play over the last 6 seasons (2014-19), since the Big Ten went to its current divisional alignment. Only Ohio State (44-4, .917) has a better league record over that span.
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-Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 36:48 — more than 90 seconds longer than any other team. Utah ranks No. 2 at 35:11.
-Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since Michigan in 1962 to record 4 shutouts in its first 6 games of a season. The last time any FBS accomplished that feat was Oklahoma in 1967 (per ESPN Stats & Info).
-The Badgers are limiting opponents to a nation-leading conversion percentage of just 22.4% on third down (24-for-107) for the season — a number that includes an 0-for-10 mark for Michigan on Sept. 21, a 2-for-14 showing for Michigan State on Oct. 12 and a 2-for-10 performance for Illinois on Oct. 19.
-Iowa is allowing 10.1 points per game, the lowest total of the Ferentz era (next best is 13.0 in 2008), and the lowest by any Hawkeye team since 1956 (8.4). Iowa’s 265.9 ypg in total defense is the lowest by any Hawkeye team since 1984 (272.2).
-Iowa has four shutouts in its last 11 Big Ten Conference games (Rutgers and Northwestern in 2019, Maryland and Illinois in 2018). No other Big Ten team has more than one shutout since the start of 2018.
-Iowa has allowed nine touchdowns in seven games. Among Big Ten schools, only Ohio State (6) has allowed fewer. Iowa is the only team in the country not to allow a rush over 20 yards this season.
-The Hawkeyes are playing in their second trophy game of the season. Iowa defended the Cy-Hawk Trophy with an 18-17 win at Iowa State on Sept. 14. The Hawkeyes are 14-3 in their last 17 rivalry trophy games (Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin), with all three losses coming to Wisconsin.
-Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette averages 28.1 yards on 37 career kickoff returns, the best in school history among players with at least 30 returns. The Big Ten record of average kickoff return yardage (minimum 40 returns) is 28.8, set by Stan Brown of Purdue (1968-70). Smith-Marsette has 1,040 kickoff return yards, eighth all-time in program history.
Wisconsin – Carrie Coon
Iowa – Frank R. Wallace
HOWE I SEE IT: I’m not sure how this shapes up as anything but a defensive tussle. We’ll see conservative offensive play calling and plenty of punting. Turnovers will be magnified.
The Hawkeyes have struggled figuring out Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense, and they’re not alone. They performed better against it last season, however, and that should provide some confidence on this trip to Madison.
Iowa defended Taylor pretty well in ’18, “holding” him to 113 yards and no scores on 25 carries. The Badgers caused damage through the air and won the turnover battle, 3-0.
How will Wisconsin rebound from a pair of losses in a row? Can Iowa’s offense show a pulse after going silent against its top competition this year?
We have questions. Soon, we will have answers.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin 16, IOWA 9
HawkeyeNation.com’s Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 23 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @RobHoweHN and @HawkeyeNationHQ on Twitter.