WHO: #13 Wisconsin Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten)
WHEN: Saturday, November 9, 2019
WHERE: Camp Randall (Madison, WI)
KICKOFF: 3:00 PM Central
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Wisconsin -9.0
WEATHER: mostly cloudy, highs in the 30s
Among Iowa's longtime Big Ten rivalries, none are closer in the win-loss column than Iowa-Wisconsin. Wisconsin holds a 47-43-2 edge in the series right now, mainly due to their recent success -- they've won six of the last seven (three in a row) and eight of the last 11 games in the rivalry. Iowa's greatest run of success against the Badgers came under Hayden Fry; Iowa went 17-0-1 against the Badgers from 1977 to 1996. Kirk Ferentz had a good run from 2002 through 2009 -- Iowa won six of eight -- but since then times have been rough for the good guys in the battle for the Heartland Trophy.
WISCONSIN SEASON RECAP
The Badgers started out the season on fire, with wins in the first six games and shutouts in four of those six wins. They were absolutely steamrolling everyone they faced, including a 35-14 bludgeoning of Michigan in Madison back in September. Wisconsin's veil of invincibility was pierced by -- of all teams -- Illinois, who shocked the Badgers with a game-winning field goal as time expired. The Badgers followed that up with a lopsided loss at Ohio State, 38-7, though it was just 10-0 at halftime and 10-7 early in the third quarter. Four straight OSU touchdowns put that game out of reach.
Wisconsin's offense was flying at the start of the season, but it's slowed down in Big Ten play, as they've been held under 30 points per game in three of their five league games this season. The Badgers are averaging 35.6 ppg overall, but 25.4 ppg in Big Ten games. Wisconsin is averaging 412.1 yards per game, 62nd in the nation. That's down to 348.6 yards per game in Big Ten play. Overall they rank 12th in the nation in offensive efficiency, per SP+.
The alpha and the omega of the Wisconsin offense is, of course, running back Jonathan Taylor. He's fifth nationally (and second in the Big Ten) with 1009 rushing yards, as well as 15 touchdowns (fourth-most nationally). That said, his 5.70 yards per carry average is by far the lowest of his career; he averaged 6.61 yards per carry in 2017 and a jaw-dropping 7.15 yards per carry in 2018. Taylor will still be the best running back Iowa has faced this year... just as he has been each of the past three seasons. Strange but true: Taylor has never rushed for a touchdown against Iowa. He ran for 157 yards on 29 carries in 2017 and for 113 yards on 25 carries in 2018... but zero rushing touchdowns.
The second-most important cog in the Wisconsin offense (outside of the behemoths across the offensive line) is quarterback Jack Coan. Coan's been one of the most efficient passers in the Big Ten this season; his 74.5% completion percentage leads the league and his passer rating of 158.3 is fourth in the league. He's done a good job of avoiding mistakes (10 TD, 2 interceptions), though one of those two interceptions gave Illinois a chance to beat Wisconsin. Coan did struggle against Northwestern (15/24, 62.5%, 113 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT) and Ohio State (10/17, 58.8%, 108 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
Quintez Cephus (6'1", 207 lbs) has been Coan's favorite target; he leads the team's pass-catchers in receptions (27), yards (410), and touchdowns (3). Tight end Jake Ferguson (6'5", 246 lbs) is second among pass-catchers in those categories (21 catches, 247 yards, 2 TD), so keeping an eye on him in coverage will be critical. Wisconsin has really shown a lot of balance in the passing game after Cephus and Ferguson, though; seven players have 10 or more receptions and 100+ receiving yards. Jonathan Taylor has also been a key contributor to the passing game, especially around the end zone; he has 17 catches for 143 yards and a team-high four touchdowns.
Defense is Wisconsin's true calling card, as it's been most years for the last 20+ years. Before giving up 62 points in their last two games, Wisconsin was easily leading the nation in scoring defense, at a preposterous 4.8 ppg. Even after that recent point eruption, though, Wisconsin still ranks fourth in the nation (and fourth in the Big Ten lol) with 11.4 ppg. They're also fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, per SP+, and best in total defense (just 223.5 yards per game). They're giving up a miserly 3.82 yards per play, second-best nationally. Wisconsin is also best in the nation in preventing third down conversions; teams are making first downs on just 22.4% of their attempts against the Badgers.
Teams aren't getting to the red zone much against Wisconsin -- just 14 times, tied for third-fewest in the nation. Opponents have scored on just nine of those 14 trips (64.3%), although eight of those scores were touchdowns. So on the rare occasions when teams have ventured past the Wisconsin 20-yard line, they've usually managed to come away with touchdowns. If Iowa can get it into the red zone, they have to finish those drives with touchdowns.
Wisconsin, like Iowa, is also excellent at preventing big plays. They've allowed just 75 plays of 10+ yards, fifth-fewest in the nation. They're sixth nationally in plays of 20+ yards (22), and seventh nationally in plays of 30+ yards (7). So Wisconsin makes it hard to move the ball methodically against the Badgers and it's hard to pick up big chunk plays on Wisconsin. Good times!
Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn are leading the Badgers in tackles, with 44 and 46 tackles, respectively. They're also #2 and #3 in tackles for loss, with 9.0 and 6.5, respectively. Zack Baun is leading the team in that category, with 12.0 tackles for loss. Those three are also 1-2-3 in sacks, with Orr leading the way (9.0), followed by Baun (7.5), and Sanborn (3.5). As a team, Wisconsin has 32 sacks, sixth-most nationally. Iowa's offensive line (and backs and tight ends) are going to need to be in top form to prevent a repeat of the pass rush apocalypse we witnessed against Michigan a month ago.
Wisconsin has eight interceptions so far, led by Eric Burrell with two. Wisconsin has been good at turning takeaways into touchdowns, though, with two pick-sixes and tow fumbles recovered and returned for scores.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
It's all about trench warfare -- just like most Iowa games and really like most Iowa-Wisconsin games. Can Iowa withstand the Badger pass rush? Can they open any holes for the running game? We know the Iowa offense has struggled to run on weaker defenses than this; what can they do against the fifth-best run defense in the country (84.1 yards per game)? That's cause for alarm.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
Just win. There are no style points needed here. Just find a way to win somehow, someway.
If you pick Iowa to win this game, you're either doing so on blind faith that something weird will happen -- or you legitimately believe that the Iowa offense can move the ball on the Wisconsin defense and turn those drives into points. And if you believe the latter, I have a mental hospital I want to show you. Iowa's offense has struggled so much this year that it's hard to have faith in them to do anything in this game. Iowa's track record on offense against Wisconsin is poor and this year's team hasn't given us much reason to believe otherwise. I'd love to see Wisconsin natives like Nate Stanley and Toren Young have big games and help Iowa pull off the upset. I just don't see how it happens.
WISCONSIN 20, IOWA 10