WHO: #18 Wisconsin Badgers (2-1, 0-0 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, September 22
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
KICKOFF: 7:30 PM Central
ONLINE: Fox Sports Go
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Wisconsin -3.0
WEATHER: Partly cloudy, highs around 70
This week's game has been hyped as the de facto Big Ten West Championship Game and while we'll have to wait and see how the rest of the season plays out to determine if that's true or not, the winner here will definitely have a big leg up in the quest to head to Indianapolis since they'll have a game lead in the division as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker. There's also all of the usual rivalry game spice on the line as well, including bragging rights and a trophy (the second-most beloved among the rivalry trophies Iowa plays for, albeit a pretty distant second).
A win over Wisconsin has also become something of a bellwether for Iowa. In each season that Kirk Ferentz has won at least 10 games (2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2015) he's beaten Wisconsin. He also beat Wisconsin in the very memorable 2008 season. In fact, the only season in which Iowa beat Wisconsin and didn't end up having a pretty notable season was 2005, when they went 7-5. Conversely, under Ferentz Iowa has never won more than eight games in a season in which it failed to beat Wisconsin (2013, 2016, and 2017 are the high water marks there).
Historically, this is one of the closest rivalries in the Big Ten. Wisconsin leads it 46-43-2 and they've taken that edge in the series due to their recent success. They've won five of the last six against Iowa, including the last four in Iowa City. Weirdly, Iowa hasn't beaten Wisconsin in Kinnick since 2008, though they're 2-1 against the Badgers in Camp Randall over that same span. Iowa's biggest period of success came from 1977 to 1996, when they never tasted defeat against Wisconsin -- they had 17 wins and a tie (10-10 in 1984) in those two decades. (They didn't play in 1993 or 1994.) Ferentz had most of his success against the Badgers in the earlier part of his tenure; he won four straight from 2002 to 2005 (which included a very memorable Big Ten Championship-clinching victory in '04 and playing spoiler on Barry Alvarez Day in '05), but has gone just 3-7 against Wisconsin since then. Last year Wisconsin beat Iowa 38-14 in a game that featured the Iowa offense hitting historic levels of ineptitude.
WISCONSIN SEASON RECAP
Wisconsin entered the year ranked #4 and with sky-high expectations. The Big Ten West was a given; a trip to Indianapolis a mere formality. Visions of Big Ten championships and potential College Football Playoff berths danced in their heads. The reality hasn't quite borne that out. They slipped down to #6 after looking somewhat unconvincing in a 45-14 win over New Mexico (they trailed 10-7 at halftime and needed several fourth quarter touchdowns to turn the game into a rout). And then last week they got ambushed by BYU, who dropped them 24-21 in a physical game.
The Wisconsin offense looks roughly the same as the Wisconsin offense five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago... going all the way back to when Barry Alvarez revitalized the program. Wisconsin football is a testament to finding an identity and embracing it completely. They're going to line up with a burly wall of offensive linemen and pound away at you with a formidable running game, balanced out with just enough play action passing to quality tight ends and receivers. Sometimes the running backs are bigger and more physical (your Ron Daynes, your PJ Hills, your John Clays) and sometimes they're a little smaller and shiftier (your Corey Clements, your Melvin Gordons, your James Whites), but whoever it is, they're pretty much always effective.
This year the Badgers rank ninth in the nation in rushing yards per game (285 ypg) at a 6.1 yards per carry clip. Behind over 1600 lbs of blocking prowess, with an offensive line that averages around 6'5", 315 lbs, Jonathan Taylor is once again the main man in the Badger rushing attack. After a spectacular freshman season when he ran for 1977 yards and 13 touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry, Taylor has run for 515 yards and 5 touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry through the first three games this season. So far his workload has gone up by about 5-6 carries per game but it hasn't had a negative impact on his production -- he's maintaining the same yards per carry average and going for 30 additional yards per game. Slowing Taylor is priority numbers one, two, and three for Iowa's defense on Saturday. Last year only one team managed to contain Taylor -- Ohio State, who held him to 41 yards on 15 carries (2.7 ypc) in the Big Ten Championship Game. Not coincidentally, that was also the only game Wisconsin lost all season.
Alex Hornibrook is once again Wisconsin's quarterback (and he's actually just a junior, so we can look forward to seeing him again in 2019 unless he goes prLOLOLOL okay sorry). Through three games, Hornibrook's numbers look a lot like they did last year:
Like pretty much every Wisconsin quarterback not named Russell Wilson, Hornibook defines the term "game manager" when it comes to quarterbacking. His top receiving option has been wide receiver A.J. Taylor, who has 12 receptions for 250 yards and a touchdown. His next most frequent pass-catcher has been (surprise!) a tight end, freshman Jake Ferguson, who has eight grabs for 108 yards. If Iowa can force Wisconsin to put a bigger offensive burden on Hornibrook and the passing game, their chance of winning this game will go way up. But to do that they need to contain Taylor.
Wisconsin's defense has been a lead-pipe lock for the last several seasons, ranking in the Top 10 in total defense in total defense in each of the last five seasons and in the Top 10 in scoring defense in four of the last five seasons. They've also been a brick wall against the run, with top-five run defenses in four of the last five seasons as well. This year that run defense wall hasn't been quite so impervious. There's a small sample size alert since we're only dealing with three games so far, but right now they're 48th in the country, giving up 130.7 ypg and 4.3 ypc. That's a far cry from what they've done against the run the last few years.
Again, there's definitely some small sample size noise here -- half of the rushing yards they've conceded this year came against BYU last week (191 yards on 28 carries, 6.8 ypc). Then again, a performance that bad against the run almost never happens for Wisconsin. The only truly comparable performances over the last five years are against Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game (they gave up 301 yards and 7.9 ypc) and Alabama in the 2015 season opener (238 yards on 6.4 ypc). The only other time they've even given up 6.0 ypc was against Miami in the Orange Bowl last year (174 yards on 6.0 ypc). Wisconsin's defense lost some key talent at defensive end and outside linebacker after last season and replacing those guys has been an issue so far.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
This game is all about trench warfare. The most intriguing battle is probably Iowa's defensive line against Wisconsin's offensive line because that pits strength against strength. That battle features each team's best unit and really will be like the unstoppable force (Wisconsin's 9th-ranked rushing offense) against the immovable object (Iowa's 2nd-ranked rushing defense). We'll absolutely find out if Iowa's rush defense is for real after this week. It's looked good so far -- and smothering a running back as talented as Iowa State's David Montgomery was very impressive -- but Wisconsin's offensive line (and Taylor) are a few steps beyond anything they've seen so far this year.
That said, arguably the most important battle for Iowa in this game might be the other side of the trench warfare: Iowa's offensive line against Wisconsin's defensive line. Iowa has struggled mightily to run the ball against Wisconsin in recent years (25 yards, 0.96 ypc in 2017; 83 yards, 3.1 ypc in 2016; 144 yards, 3.6 ypc in 2015; 101 yards, 3.6 ypc in 2014; 110 yards, 3.4 ypc in 2013), which has created immense problems for their offense. Nate Stanley and the passing game looked much improved last week, but (obvious point is obvious) Wisconsin's pass defense is much better than UNI's pass defense.
Iowa is going to need some semblance of an effective running game to win this game. Since the start of 2015, 100 yards has been the magic number; Iowa is 31-1 over the last four years when they hit at least 100 yards on the ground. They've failed to hit that in the last two years against Wisconsin; not surprisingly they lost both games and struggled to do anything on offense. This Wisconsin defense looks like it might be a little more vulnerable to the run, especially around the edges, than in years past, so hopefully Iowa can exploit that.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
Early offensive productivity. I expect this to be a low-scoring slugfest so I won't necessarily be concerned if Iowa's not able to score too many points early on (scoring early hasn't really been a thing this offense has done well this season anyway), but I think we do need to see them able to move the chains a bit and look competent on offense. If the running game is going nowhere and Iowa's going three-and-out, it's going to start feeling like the last few years against Wisconsin, and that's not a good thing. Iowa needs to change the narrative of these Iowa-Wisconsin games.
An early score would be nice, since it would likely keep what's sure to be a very hyped-up and energetic crowd into the game. That said, Iowa's offense has struggled to get going early in these big night games. Against Penn State last year, Iowa went down 5-0 in the second quarter and didn't score until a Stanley-to-Easley touchdown pass with under 40 seconds to go in the half. Against Michigan in 2016, Iowa went down 10-0 early in the second quarter and didn't score until a Jaleel Johnson safety, which was followed up by a Beathard-to-Wadley touchdown pass right before halftime to cut Michigan's lead to 10-8.
There's no doubt that Iowa wants this game badly. They were embarrassed by their performance in this game last year and they know that heading to Indianapolis for a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game will be very difficult without a win here. Of course, Wisconsin is going to want it a lot too -- they know the same thing as far as this game's importance to the Big Ten West race and they'll surely be motivated to bounce back from last week's upset loss to BYU. I think the Iowa defense shines under the lights and the Iowa offense does just enough against a Wisconsin defense that appears slightly weaker than normal. IOWA 16, WISCONSIN 13