It was a game too close for comfort for Wisconsin Badgers fans yesterday, but head coach Gary Andersen's team held on for a hard-fought 26-24 victory Saturday afternoon against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City.
There's much to be discussed in the non-blowout victory, and to breakdown the Badgers keeping the Heartland Trophy, we welcome the following writers:
Luke Mueller (@Luke_Mueller24)
The Good: What went right vs. Iowa?
Luke: While the offense didn't bust out as many big runs as previous weeks, Melvin Gordon still averaged a healthy four yards per carry if you take out his 88-yard run. The Badgers two-quarterback system worked exactly like it is supposed to. Tanner McEvoy got it done on the ground and how about the day for Joel Stave through the air?! Overall, the offense put together a well-rounded performance for -- in my eyes -- the first time all season. There are a lot of positives to take away from the offensive output.
Side note: Drew Meyer looked to be getting closer to returning to his old form. He averaged just over 39 yards per punt, and pinned Iowa inside their twenty twice.
Max: The team, as a whole, held to win a game that was decided by less than a touchdown. Put aside that Minnesota coming back to beat Nebraska ramped up the pressure in this one, and put aside that Kinnick Stadium is one of the toughest road venues in the conference, and put aside that Iowa was still very much alive at kickoff to get to Indianapolis. Although the Badgers never lost the lead after scoring their first touchdown, it looked for all the world that Jake Rudock and the Iowa offense were eventually going to take this one away. Nope, it was the offense, particularly Gordon and the much-maligned Stave, that saved the Badgers' collective bacon. It was the first time in 10 tries the team won one this close. A major achievement.
Jake: Gordon, Stave and McEvoy. The Heisman hopeful ran for 200 yards and added 64 receiving yards, showing off a much more refined all-around game his senior season. Stave -- what more can you say? He managed the game well throughout, made some key throws when needed, and that impressive run on that last drive sealed the game. McEvoy's big 45-yard touchdown run off the read option in that 20 personnel "diamond-like" formation helped break open the game early on. I'll still say the best all-around offensive performance for Wisconsin was against Maryland, where the Badgers ran for 316 yards while passed for 211 yards.
Also credit Andrew Endicott and the kickoff team this week. Endicott had three kicks go as touchbacks, and Iowa's starting field position? It's own 21.
The Bad: What didn't go right?
Luke: While most people will be critical of the defense, let's not lose sight of the fact that the Badgers were the No. 1 defense in the country. They played GREAT in the first half and fit the build of that billing. But the defense in the second half was porous. Iowa looked to stuff the ball up the middle in the first half, but it didn't work. Give their staff credit for making second half adjustments and opening up the Badger defense through the air. While they may have been torched through the air, they only allowed 101 yards on the ground. I'm wouldn't be happy with the performance, but would caution before everyone in Badger land starts losing their minds over the 400-plus yards given up. Give the Arandaconda a week to prove himself.
Not a huge area of concern, but Rafael Gaglianone cannot miss extra points. They're "layups" as coach Andersen likes to call them. I am sure he will get it right. He did hit a 50-yard field goal and the Brazilian is only a freshman, but it seems like every week something goes wrong in the special teams area. It could have cost them the game this week had Iowa had one last chance to tie it.
Max: Good call on the PAT, Luke. However, and notwithstanding the superlative efforts put in by both Rudock and Iowa's offensive line (in pass protection), the pass defense fell apart in the third quarter and, but for (finally) a sack by Derek Landisch on Iowa's last touchdown drive, never was put back together. During that time, Iowa's passing game did little wrong -- and you got the feeling that it wasn't going to stop (as in, Iowa didn't lose, they just ran out of time). Minnesota's passing game is not quite as imposing, but it's been effective its last three times out - tight end Maxx Williams is a stud, and K.J. Maye has shown he's a player, while quarterback Mitch Leidner has drawn not-as-absurd-as-it-sounds Ben Roethlisberger comparison. The Badgers will need more from the pass D this week - and, hopefully but more especially, the next.
Jake: The pass defense fell apart due to a lack of a pass rush. The Badgers only got to Rudock twice, a testament to a better-looking Iowa offensive line that features Outland Trophy semifinalist Brandon Scherff. Despite blitzes and trying to mix up the rush, the Hawkeyes held their ground.
Andersen mentioned both in a post-game interview on the Badgers Sports Radio Network as well as during the press conference that this 3-4 defense is based on man coverage. If Wisconsin cannot attack and get to the quarterback, and if you get a hot signal caller in Rudock, it's a recipe for a long afternoon. For the Badgers, it was luckily only the second half. Credit Iowa though for
The missed PAT could have been costly, for sure. Special shout out to the refs for missing that offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Tevaun Smith against cornerback Darius Hillary. It wasn't Hillary's best game, or the secondary's overall, but if that call is accurately made, Iowa may not even score on that drive -- and Wisconsin breathes a little easier.
Luke: Gordon made a big push again for the Heisman. 264 total yards of offense and two touchdowns is a great game. He showed off his hands this week, which was previously not seen. He looked like a complete back today in all facets of the game. I feel bad giving it to him every week, but he again deserves it. To spice things up though, I will chose a few others.
Joel Stave definitely deserves one for his journey to where he is today. The incumbent starter coming into this season lost the job, as we all know, and then had the "yips". He struggled, especially in the Northwestern game, but has performed better every week. Other than the game in Evanston, he has shown maturity by not turning the ball over in the head-shaking ways he had the previous two seasons (knock on wood I didn't just jinx him).
Why not give one to the safeties as well. Mike Caputo seemed to be everywhere on the field today and did a great job of stopping the ball early in the game and led the team in tackles. Peniel Jean got the start and did a great job making a play to force 4th down when Iowa's QB scrambled in hopes of getting the first. Iowa settled for a field goal. Jean had a career high in tackles.
Max: Is it just one game ball (Luke!)? All kidding aside, Stave gets the game ball. As I said above, the much maligned "statue" QB was clutch and effective all game long, especially on third down. His passing conversions to Kenzel Doe and Gordon were things of beauty and his clunky and unexpected run on what would be the final series of the game was a veteran move in the biggest spot of his career. Gordon wound up getting his (and he could a get gameball for this one, too, no doubt), but it's difficult to dispute that Stave had his best game as a Badger - and it wasn't at Camp Randall against an FCS team. He came up big in a big game.
Jake: Stave and Gordon. Like Max and Luke said above.
What's Next: Axe Game, Baby!
Luke: Well, Badgers fans have stated recently that this isn't even a rivalry game anymore. I think they got what they were hoping for because it does not get any bigger than this. One of the oldest rivalries in all of college football takes place with a chance to win the division and punch their tickets to Indianapolis for a chance to win the conference in the title game. Remember last season when Wisconsin and Minnesota players got into it after the game? Those guys on the field sure will. It will be a tough football game that will have to be won in the trenches for Wisconsin and through the air for Minnesota. The two teams match-up pretty evenly and man will it be a good one.
Look for a hard-hitting, high intensity game from both squads. Both teams want this one bad! Wisconsin will be looking to prove that they can put away teams with the ease of previous weeks and the close Iowa game was an anomaly. Minnesota is looking to end the Badgers regime of dominance over the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. Minnesota has won every major trophy they play for this year, other than the Axe. The team will be hungry to prove they are the supreme team. Oh yeah, did I mention that this is for not just bragging rights, recruiting publicity, but the Big Ten West crown too?!
Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 21
Max: It's good to be sporting, but wouldn't have been nice if the dang Gophers would have lost in Lincoln (as, by all rights, they should have - with Briean Boddy-Calhoun literally snatching victory from the "arms and hands" of defeat)? But hey, this college football and this is the longest running rivalry in the FBS ranks. Minnesota came into the season with its collective arrow pointed up under Jerry Kill and his merry band of coaches and after a 10-year drought, especially after last year's debacle (for them), the Axe was clearly number one on their list. The Gophers will be motivated, and riding high off their win at Nebraska -- the team's first road win against a ranked team since 2000. There's a lot things Kill's Gophers have done that they havne't been done since Glen Mason's time, and possession of the Axe is one of them. The Badgers won't be sleeping on this one either and Camp Randall will be rocking like it's never been this late in the calendar year. With the trip to Indy on the line, it all adds up to one hell of a game - will ESPN College GameDay be there after all?
I'm with Luke, but it'll be close, Wisconsin 33, Minnesota 30.
Jake: This is what this rivalry is supposed to be about. Two teams, pretty evenly matched in certain areas, competing for the not only Paul Bunyan's Axe but now also the Big Ten West division title and a chance to face Ohio State in Indianapolis. It's a perfect setting with it being the last regular season game. With it being Thanksgiving weekend, will the student section fill out? It's a 2:30 p.m. CT kick, so that should help some of those students get back to Madison in time.
I'm intrigued by this match-up, and after seeing Minnesota storm back against Nebraska, it's going to be a close game -- but with Wisconsin playing at home and the ultimate X-factors in Gordon and McEvoy running the ball -- I give it to Wisconsin 27-21.