The last time Iowa faced a game with a beastly defense that didn't give up many yards or points was... uh, Penn State, less than a month ago. And then the Michigan game a week before that. So the scenario Iowa faces ahead of this week's Wisconsin game isn't that novel. But the last time Iowa won a game like this was... the Outback Bowl last year, when Iowa toppled Mississippi State and their lockdown defense. So could that game hold any possible keys for Iowa to engineer another upset against a stout defense? Let's look at it...
THE RUNNING GAME
Iowa, as we know, has struggled to run the ball season. Iowa's just 9th in the Big Ten in rushing (145.8 yards per game) -- and even worse in conference-only action (12th; 98 yards per game). They're averaging 3.87 yards per carry overall, which is 10th in the Big Ten, and 2.85 yards per game in Big Ten play (12th). And now they're facing a Wisconsin team that has the second-best run defense in the Big Ten (84.1 yards per carry), though they're "only" fourth in Big Ten play (114 ypg). Wisconsin's run defense has been exposed in their last two games; Illinois had 141 yards and a touchdown on 35 carries and Ohio State 264 yards and three touchdowns on 50 carries. Can Iowa make it three in a row? Probably not!
But they faced a stingy run defense in Mississippi State, too, and came away victorious. That win wasn't due to any success Iowa had on the ground -- they ran the ball 20 times for, uh, -15 yards. That includes Nate Stanley's sack yardage, but the Iowa running backs didn't fare that much better; Toren Young, Mekhi Sargent, and Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for four rushing yards on 15 carries in that game.
It's likely that Wisconsin will out-gain Iowa on the ground in this contest; they have a much better running game than Iowa and have had much better success in this matchup over the last few years. The key stat for Iowa over the last five years has been 100 yards rushing; when Iowa runs for at least 100 yards, they're 42-4. When they fail to run for at least 100 yards, they're 1-14. The one win in that stat? The Outback Bowl against Mississippi State.
Wisconsin #5 in nation in run defense (Ls to Illinois and Ohio State expose weaknesses? Can Iowa exploit those?)
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Winning the turnover battle is always important for Iowa, but it could be especially critical in this game because Iowa is likely going to need cheap yards and easy points to win this game. Sustaining drives against Wisconsin is going to be damn hard. Enter: turnovers and short fields (or, better yet, actual defensive touchdowns). Turnovers were a huge part of Iowa's win over Mississippi State; they forced three turnovers against the Bulldogs and turned those giveaways into 17 points (out of 27 total points scored in that game). Mississippi State also scored seven points off Iowa turnovers, but that stat was still a net gain of 10 points for Iowa.
Iowa has to avoid giving up turnovers to Wisconsin; they can't afford to give Wisconsin easy scoring chances in this game. And they need to force turnovers themselves -- intercept Coan, force Taylor to fumble, whatever it takes. And if they're able to get those turnovers, they really, really need to turn those chances into points -- and preferably touchdowns.
BIG PLAYS IN THE PASSING GAME
If you can't move the ball methodically, which was a problem Iowa faced against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl and a problem they've faced several times this year, then hitting a big pass play can help mitigate that problem. That was the case against the Bulldogs; Nate Stanley was able to take advantage of an overly aggressive Bulldog defense to hit Nick Easley for a short gain that turned into a 75-yard touchdown thanks to some coverage failures by MSU.
The problem with doing that against Wisconsin? They don't give up big pass plays. They've allowed just four pass plays of 30+ yards, tied for the fewest in the country. They've given up just two pass plays of 40+ yards and one pass play for 50 or more yards. Connecting on a big pass play on Wisconsin might require some flukish circumstances.
LIMIT YOUR OPPONENT TO FIELD GOALS
When Wisconsin does have a chance to score in this game, Iowa needs to hold them to field goals. In the Outback Bowl, Mississippi State twice drove to around the Iowa 25-yard line in the first quarter; giving up one or two touchdowns then could have been disastrous, as climbing out of a 10-0 or 14-0 lead would have been immensely difficult. Instead, Iowa held them to a pair of field goals and trailed just 6-0. Iowa's offense was eventually able to get its legs underneath them and get back in the game, but that might have been nigh-impossible if they were down double digits less than a quarter into the game.
Field goals also helped keep Iowa in the game against Penn State last month. Iowa wasn't able to come all the way back and win that game, but holding Penn State's offense to field goals enabled Iowa to keep the game close deep into the fourth quarter and give the offense a chance to claw something out of the game.
So when Wisconsin has chances to score on Saturday (and unless the Iowa defense plays the game of its life, they probably will), Iowa needs to buckle down and force them to kick field goals. I can't see Iowa matching Wisconsin touchdown for touchdown, so keeping the game low-scoring and kicking-heavy is probably their best shot at sneaking out a win.
SCORE TOUCHDOWNS WHEN POSSIBLE
By that same token, Iowa needs to score touchdowns themselves when the opportunity presents itself. They were able to convert scoring opportunities to touchdowns against Mississippi State, which helped them score enough points to prevail. Their failure to score a touchdown against Penn State right before halftime after having first and goal situation ended up being crippling to their hopes of winning that game. If Iowa's in the red zone on Saturday, they need to finish those drives in the end zone.
So those are all things Iowa can try to emulate from the Mississippi State game in order to get another win over a tough defense. Can it work? Maybe! But it might also be too fluky to replicate on Saturday. The Mississippi State game swung on some key turnovers and a big passing touchdown that mainly happened because of a blown coverage. It's hard to gameplan for fumble recoveries to bounce your way or for a defense to blow a coverage and result in a 75-yard touchdown. We can hope that happens again and we can hope that Iowa will be prepared to take advantage when (or if) the right situations present themselves. But ultimately I don't know if the Mississippi State game is a great blueprint for Iowa to try and follow against Wisconsin on Saturday. Let's just hope they can find some path to a rare victory over Wisconsin.