Let's Fret: Wisconsin

By BenSewardLewis on August 11, 2022 at 5:25 pm
trench warfare
© Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
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Will Iowa Stay Badger Fodder?

About a month ago, I described the Illinois football squad as the Jim Beam to Iowa’s Jack Daniels. If I can strain the metaphor and my knowledge of whiskey just a little further, then in this scenario Wisconsin is the bottle of Jameson you buy when want something nicer. Not aged 50 years in a whale’s stomach nicer, yet something with better flavor, more sippability, but that won’t eviscerate your bank account.

Or we can put this another way: The Wisconsin Badgers are Iowa squared. The Badgers use the same philosophical model that Iowa football has been using since Kirk arrived in Iowa City -- run-heavy, ball-control offense featuring modest play at the quarterback position, paired with a tough-as-nails defense that consistently makes life Hell for opposing offenses -- only they distilled that model much more effectively, churning out teams that consistently run the ball and play better defense than Iowa, all while a series of middling quarterbacks chuck the ball just well-enough to keep the machine rolling. I have always viewed October 23rd, 2010, still the most painful Iowa game I have witnessed in person, as the dark and evil day that Wisconsin zapped us of our mojo and left us wandering around Dubuque Street aimless and dazed, like Charles Barkley after having his talent siphoned off by the Monstars.

I’m not sure how else to describe the transformation that occurred in this matchup between the first and the second decade of the 21st century. It's one of those weird statistics, but in the 21 times Iowa and Wisconsin have played during Ferentz's tenure at Iowa, the team that finishes the game with more rushing yards has won the game in all but two contests. (Wisconsin won in 2001 despite ONE fewer rushing yard. Iowa won the matchup in Madison in 2009, despite rushing for 65 yards to Wisconsin’s 87 yards.) It is obviously way, way, way too reductive to say either team won each of those games because they out-rushed the opponent, but the rushing yards in this match-up do tell an important story about two teams that desperately want to control the game at the line of scrimmage.

Between 2000-2009, Iowa out-gained Wisconsin in six out of their ten match-ups and came away with six wins. In the ten match-ups after that (we missed a couple in 2011 and 2012 thanks to the absurdity of the Legends and Leaders divisions), Iowa has out-rushed Wisconsin in two of those match-ups -- and came away with two wins. Again, that stat isn’t the whole story, however, grinding out yards on the ground, or making the other team suck more than you at grinding out yards on the ground is a huge part of this game, and Wisconsin has had the upper hand in that part of the game for a good long while.

On a macro-level, it is fairly easy to diagnose why: 1) line play, and 2) awesome running backs. For the first item, I don’t know nearly enough about development, scheme, coaching, and recruiting to elaborate on the difference, but their dudes have just been consistently better at creating space for their running backs. As to the second item... recruiting, I guess? Backs like Montee Ball, James White, Melvin Gordon, and Jonathon Taylor have all had varying degrees of success in the NFL, but as much as I love all the hombres that have hauled the rock for the Hawks, none of them have been on that level since Shonn Greene in 2008.

Why am I focusing so much on the respective differences in the running game? Because as far as I can tell, that is the meaningful difference between these two programs over the last decade. Wisconsin has definitely been the better defensive team overall during that time, with Wisconsin spending a lot of time as the best defense in the Big Ten on a yards-per-game basis, but you have to go back to 2017 to find the last time Iowa wasn’t also in the top four for the same category. (Meanwhile Iowa's running game hasn't been in the same stratosphere as Wisconsin's.)

It sure isn’t Wisconsin’s passing game that makes them scary. Let’s do the blind stat comparison bit from 2021:

Quarterback A, 165/288, 57.3% completion rate, 1880 yards, 10 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, QBR of 117.3.
Quarterback B, 169/284, 59.5% completion rate, 1958 yards, 10 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, QBR of 121.3.

Petras or Mertz, take your pick, but those stat lines are exceedingly similar. Remember, one of those quarterbacks had the advantage of playing with a running game that people actually respect. (Aside from Russell Wilson, is there a single quarterback at Wisconsin you would have traded either C.J. Beathard or Nate Stanley for?) If you put Spencer Petras on the Badgers, I would guess his stat line would get substantially better.

So here we are, with 2022 Wisconsin more effectively embodying Kirk’s platonic ideal for a 1980s Big Ten football team than his Hawkeyes, a trend whose only blips were a Wisconsin mistake-filled loss in 2015 and an Iowa victory over a 2020 Badger squad decimated by COVID and injuries. The game is in Iowa City this year, which is cool, though Wisconsin will probably be a small favorite regardless. The Badgers lost a couple of great linebackers, two corners, and a defensive end to the NFL. They also moved on a couple wide receivers, an excellent tight end, and two offensive lineman. With a team as annoyingly consistent as the Badgers, I don’t think it will matter. Braelon Allen sure looks like the next great Wisconsin running back and there hasn’t been a Wisconsin front-seven that couldn’t handle Iowa’s running game in a long time. I will be delighted if Iowa can finally get their mojo back against a real Wisconsin squad. It has a been a long time coming.

Homer Version: Graham Mertz is gonna feel the hurtz baby! Braelon Allen and the Badgers get subsumed and feel the boom from Iowa’s superior defense as the Hawks grind Wisconsin into Badger-dust baby!

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