IOWA CITY, Iowa - It was supposed to be a celebration for Barry Alvarez. The man who resurrected the Wisconsin football program was coaching his final game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Nov. 12, 2005.
Iowa decided it was going to spoil the moment. The unranked Hawkeyes knocked off No. 19 Wisconsin, 20-10, their fourth consecutive win in the series. They'd blasted the 19th-ranked Badgers, 30-7, a year earlier in wrapping up a Big Ten title.
My how times have changed. It looked at that point like Iowa would at the very least go toe-to-toe with their rivals to the north on an annual basis. That hasn't happened.
The Hawkeyes (5-2) play host to Wisconsin Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, FS1) trying to end a four-game skid in the series. The Badgers are winners of seven of the last eight meetings and nine of 12 since that '05 contest.
"It's big," quarterback Spencer Petras said of the Wisconsin game. "They've been the team in the (Big Ten) West this last decade. Nobody on this team has beat Wisconsin so it's definitely a big game for us.
"It's added motivation that none of us have held the Heartland Trophy."
Iowa comes into this game with momentum having won five contests in a row after dropping its first two. The Badgers won their first two and have come up short in their last two games. They've had three games canceled by COVID-19.
Wisconsin lacks the star running back everyone is used to seeing on its roster. Jalen Berger (45 carries, 267 yards), Nakia Watson (40-162) and Garrett Groshek (24-96) have shared the load and have been effective at times, but they won't make anyone forget Jonathan Taylor or Melvin Gordon. The offensive line is experienced and physical, however.
"It's a different style of game for sure," Hawkeye linebacker Nick Niemann said. "There's no one we've played up to this point that's going to come close to what they do. They're big and physical. They want to play smash-mouth football and they're going to try to run the ball.
"We have a lot of respect for them. They're a tough team."
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz (75 of 118 for 807 yards, 8 touchdowns, 4 interceptions) started fast in wins against Illinois and Wisconsin with seven scoring tosses and no picks. He's come back to earth in setbacks against Northwestern and Indiana with one TD and four picks. Last year's starter, Jack Coan, has been healing from a broken foot and could see action Saturday.
"The thing I appreciate about Jack and all the quarterbacks in that room, you can have honest conversations," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said Monday. "So I think we’ve got to see how this week goes for Jack first and foremost. Then you make decisions following that."
Mertz's growth has been stunted by the absence of his top pass catchers. Kendric Pryor (8 catches, 119 yards) sat out the Northwestern game and Danny Davis (3-78, 1 TD) missed the last two contests.
Tight end Jake Ferguson (23-235-4), Alvarez's grandson, has served as Mertz's security blanket. Groshek and Jack Dunn each has hauled in 10 receptions for 64 yards.
"We have to be more physical up front," Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said. "We have to dominate the line of scrimmage like we have been doing in these last few games. Our focus is making sure we get our run fits and get good pressure up the middle.
"If we do our job of front, we shouldn't have any problems."
The Wisconsin defense is once again stout. It ranks second nationally in fewest points allowed per game (12.3) and first in fewest rushing yards yielded per contest (72.2).
Iowa is succeeding with running the ball better than it has in recent memory. It's averaging 173.3 yards per game and 4.7 per carry.
Spencer Petras, the first-year starting quarterback for the Hawkeyes, settled down in the second half of last week's 35-21 victory at Illinois. He has struggled with consistency this season, though, and will need to think fast against Wisconsin's 3-4 defensive alignment.
"They do what they want to do really well, very disciplined. We definitely have our work cut out for us. We're up for the challenge," Petras said.
The Badger defense has been stingy against the run this season but it hasn't faced a pair of talented backs like Iowa's Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent. During the five-game winning streak, they combined for 151 carries and 826 yards (5.5 YPC) and 10 touchdowns. Wisconsin has allowed 2.9 yards per carry.
"It's going to be a tough game. It's going to be a physical game," Chryst said. "We've talked all season about being grateful for the opportunity to play. We have that and we have the opportunity to play against a really good team. There's a lot of motivation there."
TV ANNOUNCERS: Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman on FS1.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 94th meeting between Iowa and Wisconsin. Through 93 games, Wisconsin leads 48-43-2. Iowa is 19-27-1 all-time in games played in Madison. Iowa is 24-20-1 all-time in games played in Iowa City.
Wisconsin has won the last five meetings at Iowa. The Hawkeyes last win over the Badgers at Kinnick Stadium was in 2008 (W, 38-16). Iowa’s last win in the series was a 10-6 victory in 2015.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 3.0-point favorite at Vegas Insiders on Sunday. Iowa moved to being a 1.5-point favorite at Elite Sports Book in Riverside as of Tuesday afternoon. The total was at 42.5.
-Badgers are 2-5 Against The Spread in their last 7 road games vs. a team with a winning home record.
-Badgers are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 meetings in Iowa.
-Hawkeyes are 4-1-1 ATS in their last 6 games overall.
-Under is 7-2-1 in Hawkeyes last 10 home games.
WISCONSIN PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Graham Mertz, QB – The former five-star recruit from Kansas burst on the scene with five touchdowns in the season-opener against Illinois. Then he tested positive for COVID-19. He engineered a big win at Michigan his next time out but struggled the last two games, throwing one touchdown and four interceptions in a pair of losses. It will be interesting to see how the talented signal caller holds up against one of the best defenses he's faced to date.
–Jack Sanborn, LB – Iowa badly wanted Sanborn when he was coming out of high school in the Chicago area. He chose Madison and has settled into a program known for producing top-notch linebackers. He leads his team with 19 solo tackles and 29 total stops. He'll be a challenge for Iowa's running backs.
-Jake Ferguson, TE – The grandson of Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, Ferguson is one of the conference's top players at his position. He leads the Badgers in catches (23), receiving yards (235) and receiving touchdowns (4). Iowa is well equipped to match up against the tight end, but Ferguson will be an important cover.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Wisconsin: The Badgers look like themselves defensively but are lacking a consistent rushing attack that's a major part of their DNA and sets up everything offensively. They need to get something going on the ground this week.
Iowa: The Hawkeyes struggle against Wisconsin's 3-4 defense. They don't need an offensive explosion, but limiting turnovers and negative plays are a must.
-Dating to the 2010 season, Wisconsin has won 22 of its last 24 games with a traveling trophy on the line vs. Iowa (Heartland Trophy), Minnesota (Paul Bunyan’s Axe) and Nebraska (Freedom Trophy).
-Among the 127 FBS teams that have played at least one game this season, Wisconsin is the only team that is yet to allow a rushing touchdown. The Badgers own the nation’s top rushing defense, allowing just 72.3 yards per game, and have held each of their last 3 opponents under 100 yards on the ground.
-Wisconsin is the only FBS program to have alumni as head coach (Paul Chryst), offensive coordinator (Joe Rudolph) and defensive coordinator (Jim Leonhard) in 2020.
-The six players who have started on the O-line for Wisconsin this season have a combined 201 games played and have combined to make 102 starts in their careers.
-Wisconsin executive director of football administration Eric Johnson spent 15 seasons at Iowa, including 11 as an assistant coach, between 1999 and 2013.
- Iowa has won its last five games, outscoring its opponents 186-76 and averaging 37.2 points per game during the winning streak. The Hawkeyes 186 points scored over the last five games represent the best five-game stretch since Iowa totaled 207 in the first five games of 2002.
-The Hawkeyes are 18-4 in their last 22 rivalry trophy games (Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin), with all four losses coming to Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes defended Floyd of Rosedale at Minnesota on Nov. 13 (W, 35-7). Iowa defended the Heroes Trophy with a 26-20 win on Nov. 27 against Nebraska.
-The Hawkeyes rank third in the Big Ten with 10 interceptions (Indiana 17; Northwestern 12). Iowa has 63 interceptions since 2017, the most by any team in the country. DE Zach VanValkenburg has four fumble recoveries this season, tied for the most in the country. Iowa has scored 66 points off turnovers this year (29 percent of total points).
-Twenty-two senior members of the Iowa football program will be recognized Saturday. Since the start of the 2017 season the Hawkeyes have won 32 games and qualified for a bowl game every year (3-0). The senior class has an overall record of 32-14, including a 18-6 mark at home, a 20-14 record in Big Ten games, and a 13-3 record in trophy games (10-3 in rivalry games, 3-0 in bowl games).
-Iowa has played 21 straight games without surrendering 25 points, the longest streak in the nation among Power 5 teams. DT Daviyon Nixon leads an Iowa defensive front that ranks second in the Big Ten in sacks (20.0) and tackles for loss (46.0). Nixon leads the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for loss. DE Zach VanValkenberg ranks third with 8.5 tackles for loss, and DE Chauncey Golston ranks seventh with 7.5 tackles for loss. Golston’s 4.5 sacks rank fourth in the conference.
Wisconsin – Daniel J. Travanti
Iowa – Justin Cronin
HOWE I SEE IT: Like most seasons, this game looks like a defensive struggle on paper. Both teams are dominating on that side of the ball and are searching for consistency on offense. That said, watch this game turn into a shootout.
The Hawkeyes have averaged 14.4 points during the last five contests in this series. Wisconsin averaged 22.6 in compiling a 4-1 record against its rival during that time.
The most difficult part of handicapping this game is comparing an Iowa team that has played seven weeks in a row and a Badgers' outfit that experienced two separate COVID-19 stoppages. I have a better feel for the Hawkeyes than Wisconsin.
Underestimating the Badgers would be a mistake but that doesn't seem likely in this case. It's hard to imagine a team on Iowa's schedule it wants to beat any more than its rival to the north.
With what we have to go on in this crazy season, the Hawkeyes look like the better group here. They have a more balanced offense and better special teams. That makes them the pick.
PREDICTION: IOWA 17, Wisconsin 13