The battle for the Heartland Trophy begins again on Saturday morning.
The No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers will face the Iowa Hawkeyes (11 a.m. kickoff, ESPN) at Kinnick Stadium. UW (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) and Iowa (5-2, 3-1) have split the last 10 meetings since the trophy was introduced back in 2004.
Wisconsin has won 11 of its last 12 trophy games, but that one loss came last season in the conference opening loss to the Hawkeyes in a 10-6 defensive slugfest.
The road team has won five years in a row — can the Badgers make it six?
Here are three keys to Wisconsin bringing that trophy back to Madison on Saturday afternoon:
Contain Iowa’s run game, without Olive Sagapolu at nose guard
The Hawkeyes average 180 yards per game on the ground, highlighted by the running back duo of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels. Wadley, a 5’11, 191-pound sophomore, leads the conference in yards per carry (7.42), while Daniels averages 5.4 yards per rush. Both are closing in on 600 yards heading into Saturday’s match-up and have scored 14 rushing touchdowns combined.
Wisconsin’s 13th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 106 per game, and they return senior outside linebacker Vince Biegel from his foot injury. The team captain and emotional leader of the team will be a welcomed sight on the field for a unit ranked ninth in scoring defense (15.2 points per game) and 12th in total defense (311.2 yards).
Stop Iowa’s rushing attack, which could be affected by some injuries on the offensive line, and Wisconsin could go full speed ahead in attacking quarterback C.J. Beathard (60.1 percent completion percentage, 175.3 yards per game passing, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions). Opponents have sacked Iowa quarterbacks 18 times this season already — and with Iowa’s passing attack missing wide receiver Matt VandeBerg for the season and possibly tight end George Kittle -- it could be a large feast awaiting Badgers defenders in the backfield on Saturday if Iowa is forced to throw the ball.
The Hawkeyes’ offense will have to deal with Biegel, fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt (5.5 sacks, eight tackles for loss), and inside linebackers Jack Cichy (50 tackles, seven for loss) and T.J. Edwards (37 tackles).
There is a significant loss that could impact the effectiveness of stopping the Iowa rushing attack, however, as sophomore nose guard Olive Sagapolu was ruled out of the game on Thursday (right arm).
Behind Sagapolu, the Badgers will have to rely on Garrett Rand, the 6’2, 274-pound true freshman who is listed as the team’s No. 2 nose guard. Redshirt sophomore Billy Hirschfeld’s also could receive some time in that role.
“[Rand]’s faster than I expected,” redshirt junior defensive end Alec James said on Wednesday, before the official word of Sagapolu’s absence was announced. “He’s playing with that effort that we like, so he’s doing a great job.”
The Wisconsin defensive line does not have a senior in its two-deep, but between James, redshirt junior Chikwe Obasih and junior Conor Sheehy, there’s enough experience to help plug the loss of their 340-pound anchor. If they can, that should continue to help the linebackers make the plays they’ve made all year — and continue the defensive unit’s impressive showing against the run.
“One thing about that group that is really cool is they are a tough group and a prideful group,” Chryst said Thursday about the defensive linemen. “They know they’ve got to step up their game to keep the pride of that room.
“We’re going to be challenged from Iowa, but that group’s got to come together, and they will — that’s kind of who they are.”
Build off a strong rushing effort against Ohio State
Not trying to be repetitive here, but it’s another week where the running game needs to assert itself early.
Against of the best rush defenses in the nation, Wisconsin rushed for 236 yards last week in their most impressive effort so far this season. Senior running back Corey Clement gained 164 yards on 25 carries, and it was a welcomed sign that an offensive line short in depth due to injuries found a way to gain substantial gains on the ground.
“I think we were just consistent in our fits than we were when we were playing against Michigan and Michigan State,” redshirt sophomore guard/center Michael Deiter said on Tuesday, when asked what the difference in results was from prior games. “I don’t know if there were any technique things that were completely different. It looked like we had pad level, stuff like that, but the consistency was there. It wasn’t Corey [Clement] seeing a different look here because we were on a different landmark there. The landmarks were all tight for the most part, and that allows the running backs to see the same hole consistently.
“It allows them to run with a different confidence, where as he might be guessing and not anticipating where it’s going to be — just having to scan and try to find holes.”
Wisconsin must build off that solid showing against a Hawkeyes defense giving up 151.9 yards per game on the ground. In their 38-31 loss against Northwestern, Iowa gave up 198 yards rushing — 171 to running back Justin Johnson. In the past two weeks, they’ve held Minnesota and Purdue to 102 and 49, respectively.
Linebacker Josey Jewell leads the team with 61 tackles, and defensive linemen Jaleel Johnson, Nathan Bazata, Anthony Nelson and Matt Nelson have combined for 17 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.
Regardless of who’s lined up across from the offensive line, Wisconsin has to get some momentum in the ground game on first- and second-down to alleviate the passing game. Cornerback Desmond King has registered 29 tackles and six pass break-ups this season so far, with one interception that was returned for a touchdown against Purdue.
Saturday’s game will be won on that line of scrimmage.
Contain another impressive returner, take advantage of opportunities
If Wisconsin can contain King in the return game like they did Michigan defensive and special teams standout Jabrill Peppers, they will be in good shape.
That’s a tall task. King has returned 19 punts for almost 10 yards per return. Wisconsin is second to last in the conference in net yards per punt (30.4).
Either true freshman Anthony Lotti (37.5 yards per punt — not net) or redshirt sophomore P.J. Rosowski (37.54 yards) will have to place and drive the ball well to contain King.
The bigger worry may be on kickoff returns. King has averaged 28.5 yards per return, include a long of 48. Rosowski has been fantastic as Wisconsin’s kickoff specialist, recording 20 of his 32 kickoffs as touchbacks. That 62.5 percentage is second to Iowa’s Ron Coluzzi (77.5 percent).
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus notes, Wisconsin’s kickoff coverage unit has held opponents to 14.7 yards per return — best in the FBS.
The cliche that keeps on coming each week, but Wisconsin will have to take advantage of any turnover gifted and any beneficial field position given to them. Last season, UW’s four turnovers cost them a 10-6 loss at Camp Randall Stadium — including two interceptions by King.
On the road in a hostile environment in Kinnick Stadium, the Badgers cannot afford falling behind early due to miscues — and absolutely have to cash in on those opportunities to continue their quest for a Big Ten West division title.
In a Q&A with Black Heart Gold Pants this week, I said either 24-10 or 24-17 Wisconsin if Sagapolu was out of the game. This game comes down to who plays defense better, and I think that’s the Badgers. Daniels and Wadley are impressive and will give Wisconsin some trouble, and it’s a rivalry game, but I feel Justin Wilcox’s squad will be up to the challenge -- including Rand in what could be his first career start at nose guard.
Wisconsin 24, Iowa 17.