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Q&A: What to expect from Iowa’s offense vs. Wisconsin

Black Heart Gold Pants breaks down the Hawkeyes’ offense.

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s the first of three rivalry games in the 2016 season for the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers, as they travel a few hours southwest to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Iowa (5-2, 3-1) have had an up and down first seven games, with home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern, but are on a two-game winning streak heading into their defense of the Heartland Trophy they won last year in a 10-6 slugfest in Madison.

Joining us to break down Kirk Ferentz’ squad is Max Brekke from our SB Nation cousins, Black Heart Gold Pants.

Seems like the 2016 Iowa squad has been up and down. A solid 2-0 start gave way to a rough loss to North Dakota State, a begrudging win against Rutgers, and another loss to Northwestern. The Hawkeyes have won two straight heading into Saturday's match-up. Generally speaking, what can you make of this team?

Max: What can I make of this team? It's Week 8, and I still have no idea. They seem to be progressing in the right direction, but just when Iowa fans think that they've turned a corner, the Hawkeyes appear to lose their footing and fall over. For example, fans were super pumped up after allowing only one score to the Goofers, and just when that defense looked solid against Purdue, David Blough decided to throw for about 300 yards in the final quarter and a half. Granted, that was mostly due to Iowa playing their second-team defense, but the question all week has been whether or not Kirk Ferentz was too conservative in his play-calling in the second half.

The running game is definitely there, as Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels might be the best duo Iowa has ever had (both could easily eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground this season), but the passing game has left a whole lot to be desired, especially since Matt VandeBerg went down with a season-ending injury. The defense looks stout against the run, but the secondary looks susceptible to the big play time and time again.

All that being said, this is definitely a talented Iowa football team. The pieces haven't come together all at once this season (with the lone exception being a blowout against Iowa State), but they're all there. I think, and hope, that playing against great opponents in the coming weeks will get the Hawks back on track.

Are there any key injuries on Iowa's side that could affect depth?

There are a few major ones. First off, tight end George Kittle is hurt with a sprained foot that he suffered against Purdue last week. In his weekly presser, Ferentz said it's probably not realistic for Kittle to play on Saturday. If he does, he probably won't make much of an impact, which is unfortunate because he's just about the only receiving threat that C.J. Beathard truly trusts at this point in time. Behind him, Iowa has Peter Pekar and Noah Fant. Pekar has been used almost exclusively as a blocking tight end this season, and Fant has had very minimal playing time, although the injury to Kittle last week got him some reps and even a pretty great touchdown catch in the third quarter.

The offensive line is where the depth is really a question mark. Cole Croston sat out this past week against Purdue with an injury and was left off the depth chart for this week's game against Wisconsin, but Ferentz sounded optimistic that he'd be ready to play. During the Purdue game, Boone Myers and Sean Welsh left with undisclosed injuries, too, and while they're both atop the depth chart this week, there's the question as to how healthy they actually are. One thing is for sure, though — if Iowa's offensive line struggles due to injury, it's going to be a long day for the Hawkeyes' offense against what appears to be an elite Badger defense.

Wadley also left the Purdue game briefly with an injury (just about everyone did, it was pretty insane), but he returned to the game and appeared to be okay. He should be fine this week.

Offensively, much has been said about running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels, as both are averaging well over five yards per carry, are nearing 600 yards rushing and have scored 15 of the team's 29 touchdowns this season. What are their roles in this offense, and how are they utilized?

To start, I'm going to discuss the only running back that seems to have a true role in the Iowa offense, and that's one you didn't mention. Derrick Mitchell, Jr. is the third down running back for the Hawkeyes, and you can expect to see him in some other obvious passing downs as well. He's a former wide receiver, so the pass-catching abilities are definitely there, but where he truly stands out is in pass protection. Mitchell is an absolute monster and very rarely gets beaten by pass rushers.

To get back to Wadley and Daniels, though, the two split time pretty evenly throughout the course of a game. Wadley is utilized much more in the passing game, as he's definitely the one you want to get in space. He's so shifty, and has such good acceleration and speed that he's definitely the ideal pass-catching running back. When Mitchell doesn't come in for third downs, Wadley is more than likely the guy you'll see in the backfield alongside Beathard.

In the running game, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of differences in the situations the two backs are used. Ferentz will usually try to run with the guy who's hot at the moment, but otherwise they'll split time on any particular drive. I think the guy that Iowa fans prefer to see, though, is Wadley. His ability to make defenders miss is something Iowa fans don't normally get a chance to see, and he's both really exciting and really productive. Daniels is your prototypical Iowa running back, and while he can make guys miss and has some speed, too, he's going to run between the tackles more often than not.

How's C.J. Beathard progressed this season at quarterback, and who are the receiving targets Wisconsin's secondary will have to watch?

Beathard has been a major concern for fans this season due to his lack of progression. I think a lot of that has to do with the lack of playmakers at receiver, as Iowa lost NFL wide receiver Tevaun Smith, Jacob Hillyer, Henry Krieger-Coble, and Jordan Canzeri to graduation, and Matt VandeBerg to a foot injury. As a result, the weapons he's had to use have largely been unproven underclassmen. I think that slowed him down quite a bit at the beginning of the season, as Iowa has still yet to find a true deep threat on offense, and C.J. is just now finding a rapport with the receivers.

The offensive line has probably led to his lack of progression, too. Despite Pro Football Focus saying Iowa has the best offensive line in the country, it definitely hasn't been, especially in pass protection. C.J. has taken a whole ton of hits from opposing defenses, and as a result, his timing has been thrown way out of whack. He scrambles too early this season, and sometimes just doesn't get rid of the ball when he's supposed to, which has affected his accuracy and probably his confidence. He played through a sports hernia last season, but it's truly a question how much more his body can take.

As for receiving threats, I'm not so sure who Wisconsin fans should watch out for this week. Kittle has the second most receptions among active Iowa players, but he probably won't play. Fant should be the one to get his targets out of the tight end spot, should Iowa choose to replicate their tight end production without Kittle. Out of the receivers, senior Riley McCarron is going to be the one to earn the most targets, as he leads the team with 24 receptions and three touchdowns. Jerminic Smith has been a starting wide receiver all season long, and Jay Scheel also has the kind of speed that could lead to big plays. And as I said earlier, Wadley has the most catches out of the backfield this season and will likely be a primary target for the Hawkeyes.