The first game after non-conference play runs its course is always an interesting one. You have an idea of what you have in your team, but if you're not truly battle-tested, you can never be too sure.
For the Wisconsin Badgers, they were too thin to hold off Alabama establishing dominance in Week 1, and after crushing Miami (Ohio) they played patiently and got to 3-1 with strong defense and an offensive line that is still coming together.
You can assume Wisconsin is reasonably good, but Iowa always seems to have its best foot forward when it comes to facing the Badgers. Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium, we'll see if that holds true again.
Iowa needed a 57-yard field goal to beat Pittsburgh in Week 3, and the Panthers seem like they're going to return to the BBVA Compass Bowl for the 87th straight season. But the Hawkeyes do have two aspects to their game that could cause troubles for the Badgers. One: their run defense has been generally stout. Inflated by being really good at getting sacks, but stout. Most of the purchase that Iowa's opponents have found in the ground game belongs to North Texas being behind enough early in the game that it was able to make plays on the ground. Linebackers Cole Fisher and Josey Jewell are both on pace to get 100 tackles for the season, and no matter how well Wisconsin's offensive line plays, they should both fill up the stat sheets.
More on the Game
More on the Game
Then again, Badgers running back Taiwan Deal finally seemed to run with vigor and confidence last week against Hawaii. Again, it is the Rainbow Warriors, and they are more interestingly bad than good. But they held Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott to a mortal 3.74 yards per carry (Elliott did get three touchdowns, if we want to be accurate, but stay with me). Deal rushing for nearly 2 more yards per carry on about the same number of carries is a good sign for UW's rushing attack and the growing-healthier offensive line.
Even if redshirt freshman right tackle Beau Benzschawel can give it a go for Wisconsin, it's going to be a rockfight in the trenches. Iowa defensive end Nate Meier has been a nasty presence on defense, averaging six tackles (1.5 for loss), 1.25 sacks and one quarterback hurry in non-conference play, and fellow defensive end Drew Ott is back from an elbow injury.
So what does that mean? Expect the Badgers to plan on getting the ball to backs and tight ends, especially the returning Troy Fumagalli and Alex Erickson, in space. The Hawkeyes' Desmond King has been playing a professional level of cornerback in non-conference play, already grabbing three interceptions. With King making plays in the secondary, Iowa is able to generate 14 sacks on the year, tied for sixth nationally, and the defense has been able to generate turnovers.
On offense for Iowa, Jordan Canzeri has finally received the leader's share of the running back time share andended the non-conference with eight rushing touchdowns. Yeah, he got half of them against North Texas, but he's also earned the circle of trust at the goal line; the 225-pound LeShun Daniels is getting carries, but he doesn't have a touchdown. The thing of it is, while Pitt got worn down in the second half, it was able to punch with the running game. So while there is talent on Iowa's line and the backfield, Wisconsin's youthful and attacking defense is going to make plays on the Hawkeyes' running game.
Ultimately, this game will depend on Wisconsin's secondary and just how much pressure the defense can get on Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, who has completed 68 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdown passes against one interception. Matt VandeBerg has been a key safety valve at rece9ver when Iowa has had to throw the ball; add in Tevaun Smith, Canzeri and Henry Krieger Coble all grabbing 10 catches so far, and Bethard has the weapons to force the Badgers to make quality plays in the secondary. Last year, Jake Rudock almost beat the Badgers. The difference in secondary coaching between Ben Strickland and Daronte Jones is going to be interesting to see.
All in all, the Badgers seem like they could be favored a point or two too high if you're in it for entertainment purposes. Nonetheless, this does look like a typical battle between Wisconsin and Iowa. Two teams trying to establish themselves on the ground and if the game is evenly matched, someone is going to come out of nowhere for the heroics. Whoever comes out on top is likely going to have to earn it.
TV: ESPN (Steve Levy, Brock Huard, Shannon Spake)
Live streaming: WatchESPN
Radio: Badger Sports Network
Betting line: Wisconsin -7