The No. 18/No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (3-1) host the Iowa Hawkeyes (4-0) at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday in a pivotal early divisional match-up that could place the winner as the favorite in the Big Ten West.
The Hawkeyes look to stay undefeated in a resurgent 2015 season under head coach Kirk Ferentz, and hope to start 5-0 for the first time since 2009. That season, Iowa came into Madison and defeated Wisconsin 20-10 after a quick Badgers start faded. Led by quarterback C.J. Beathard, the offense has scored over 37 points per game, and an impressive defense has held opponents to only 84 yards rushing per contest.
Wisconsin looks to continue its winning ways and extend its streak to four games on Saturday morning. Outside linebackers Joe Schobert (9.5) and Vince Biegel (5.5) have combined for 15.0 tackles for loss through four games this season, the most of any pair of linebacker teammates in the nation.
The Hawkeyes are looking to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2009 when they visit Madison this weekend. Iowa's offense is averaging nearly 440 yards and over 37 points per game.
What has junior quarterback C.J. Beathard brought to this offense in place of the departed, newly minted Michigan man Jake Rudock?
Good question. Beathard has brought a lot of confidence to the offense -- and I mean that in a lot of ways. He's a very confident player -- he's not afraid to take gambles and try difficult passes and he's not scared to take off and run for yards if he needs to, either. (Which is another thing he's brought to the table -- he's probably the most dynamic runner at quarterback Iowa's had since Brad Banks over a decade ago. He's not Braxton Miller or anything, but he can make stuff happen with his legs.) But he also seems to inspire more confidence in his fellow players on offense and in the coaches -- we're not talking anything too wild and crazy with the playcalling, but there is more downfield passing than we saw under Jake Rudock. Overall, it just doesn't feel like the Iowa offense is trapped in a box anymore. Iowa has only had a truly high-powered offense on a handful of occasions under Ferentz and I doubt this year's offense will reach those standards -- but it looks like an offense that can actually move the ball and score some points, which is a huge relief after what Iowa fans have seen over the last few years.
Iowa is averaging 243 yards per game through the air. What have Matt VandeBerg and Tevaun Smith brought to the passing game, and are there other weapons the Badgers should keep their eye out for?
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Smith is Iowa's most explosive threat -- he's averaging 19.6 yards per catch (although to be fair his 235 yard total through four games has certainly been goosed by the 81-yard touchdown pass he hauled in versus North Texas last week). He's a guy Iowa fans have been begging the coaches to get more involved for several years now because he has the ability to be a real weapon for the Iowa offense. VandeBerg is the Mr. Reliable in Iowa's passing game -- he's Beathard's favorite target by far and he's repaid that trust with 25 catches for 242 yards. VandeBerg does a bit more work around the line of scrimmage and is more of a classic possession receiver with his sure hands and ability to wiggle free, but he's shown some downfield chops at times, too.
Beyond Smith and VandeBerg, the two names to know in the Iowa passing game are probably Jordan Canzeri and Henry Krieger-Coble. Canzeri is, of course, Iowa's starting running back -- but he also has the second-most receptions on the team this year (13). He's a frequent target in dump-offs and in the screen game and he's helped keep the chains moving in that capacity. If Wisconsin is pressuring Beathard a lot, I'd expect to see him use a lot of quick passes to Canzeri to try and provide a spark on offense. Krieger-Coble is Iowa's top tight end at the moment. Jake Duzey held that role last year and may yet again this year, but he's also recovering from offseason knee surgery. He played a few snaps last week and seems able to play a bigger role this week, but he probably won't be a huge weapon in the passing game just yet. Krieger-Coble has been another steady release valve for Beathard in the passing game and a good source of first downs.
The running game has gained nearly 200 yards per game through four games. Both running back Jordan Canzeri and Beathard are averaging over 5 yards per carry.
What has made the Hawkeyes' offense so successful on the ground?
I do think the Iowa running game is better this year -- part of that is down to having actual running backs at tailback now instead of a converted fullback (God bless Mark Weisman; it was fun to watch him pulverize defensive backs at times, but his lack of quickness really limited things for the Iowa rushing attack) and part of that is down to having a quarterback that's able to more effectively challenge defenses and prevent them from completely loading up the box. That said, Iowa's success on the ground so far might also be a bit of a mirage -- they've done most of their damage against Illinois State (an undersized FCS defense), Iowa State (currently 91st in rushing defense), and North Texas (112th in rushing defense). Pitt is ranked 15th in rushing defense and Iowa barely cracked 100 yards on the ground against them. The advanced stats suggest that Iowa's ground game isn't quite as good as some of the surface-level stats say it has been. So while I do think the Iowa ground game is better, I don't think it's all that spectacular yet, either.
Looking at the defense, Iowa has allowed only 84 rushing yards per game, 12th in the nation and just behind Wisconsin. Who's stepped up on that Hawkeyes front seven to hold opponents to 2.65 yards per touch?
There were some questions about how well Iowa would be able to replace Carl Davis (currently plying his trade in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens) and Louis Trinca-Pasat at defensive tackle this year, but Jaleel Johnson and Nathan Bazata have done a solid job plugging the middle for the Iowa running game. Drew Ott/Parker Hesse (Ott injured his elbow against Iowa State and has played limited minutes the last two weeks) and Nate Meier have improved their ability to hold contain on the edge as well, but the biggest change for Iowa's defense is probably at the linebacker position. They re-shuffled the players at all three linebacker spots after last season and so far the results are encouraging -- they seem to have guys at positions that fit them better and enable them to make more plays. That said, they also just gave up 183 yards on the ground to North Texas, so there are still some kinks to work out in the ground game, too. I'm still a bit nervous of the Badger ground game, even with Corey Clement out for this game.
Iowa ranks in the top 20 in the FBS in total defense and only allows passing 210 yards per game -- and the Hawkeyes have already sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times.
Who in the secondary could give Wisconsin receiving targets Alex Erickson, Robert Wheelwright and Austin Traylor trouble, and who will the Badgers have to contain from hitting Joel Stave?
I'll answer the second part of that question first. Ott is Iowa's best pure pass-rusher, but as noted above, he's been hampered by an elbow injury the last two weeks, so it's unclear how effective he'll be on Saturday. He has three sacks on the year. Meier, Iowa's other starting defensive end, is actually Iowa's leading sack-getter this year -- he has five sacks. He's the guy that may be the biggest threat for the Badger offensive line this year. Iowa has also dialed up some blitzes from the linebackers this year, which has been effective at times -- Bo Bower and Ben Niemann each have a pair of sacks for Iowa.
In the secondary, the main name to know is Desmond King. He's Iowa's right-side corner back and he's likely to continue Iowa's trend of sending defensive backs to the NFL. He's very good in coverage and good in run support as well. Throwing in his direction is generally not advised. King's partner at corner back, Greg Mabin, isn't quite up to his level but he's been rapidly improving since being named a starter last year -- he came to Iowa as a wide receiver so he's had to learn the ropes in the secondary. Jordan Lomax has really come into his own at free safety as well -- he'll deliver some punishing hits on receivers who come over the middle, but he's also adept at providing deep coverage.
This will be a physical game, like most Iowa-Wisconsin games. One particular statistical matchup to note is that Iowa leads the Big Ten in third-down conversions and red-zone offense. Wisconsin allows just under 32 percent of third-down conversions and leads the conference in red-zone defense.
What are your main keys to the game and your prediction?
Before the season, I had this chalked up as a loss for Iowa -- I figured the gap between Iowa and Wisconsin was still a little too big and the fact that the game was in Madison would make it too hard for Iowa (although the Hawkeyes have won 3 of the last 4 games between the two in Madison, weirdly enough). But after a month's worth of games, I'm not sure the gap is all that big -- Iowa looks better than I expected and the Badgers have been slightly worse than I expected (and will be without one of their best offensive weapons in Clement). So I'm feeling a bit more optimistic about an Iowa win as a result.
I think the keys of the game are going to be turnovers and weird big plays. I think both teams are going to struggle to be too effective with their base offenses -- they may move the ball some, but I don't think either team will be able to consistently move the ball on the other. So whichever team is able to generate the most turnovers and take advantage of short fields -- or which team is able to gain an advantage through big weird plays like trick plays or fake field goals/punts -- is the team that will win this game. My heart says that will be Iowa, but my head thinks the Badgers are the safer pick. I'm going to very reluctantly side with my head and say Wisconsin 23, Iowa 17. I really hope I'm wrong.