A lot is on the line for the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers when they face the No. 20 Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday afternoon inside Camp Randall Stadium.
The Heartland Trophy is at stake, with the road team having won each of the last six match-ups dating back to 2009. Wisconsin (9–0, 6–0 Big Ten) holds a 6–5 lead in the series since the trophy was introduced back in 2004.
More importantly, the Badgers’ quest for an undefeated season will be tested against a Hawkeyes team (6–3, 3–3) that is coming off a 55–24 beatdown of now-No. 13 Ohio State.
“I know we saw that score, and everyone was like, ‘Alright, we need to go back and watch this game and figure out what happened,’” redshirt senior safety Joe Ferguson said on Wednesday. “Everybody’s really quick to get home and get on their iPads and watch the film because we wanted to know what happened.
“We expected them to play Ohio State well. We didn’t know what the outcome would be, but they’re a tough team and they really brought it to Ohio State that day.”
There’s a lot to admire about Kirk Ferentz’s squad heading into the Saturday contest (2:30 p.m., ABC), with a young quarterback from the Badger State throwing strikes to his talented tight ends, and a defense that ranks second in the conference behind Wisconsin in interceptions and third in pass defense efficiency.
B5Q welcomes Black Heart Gold Pants’ Max Brekke to help us further examine the Hawkeyes.
Iowa comes into Madison riding high after its victory over Ohio State. What allowed for such a blowout, especially when the Hawkeyes were coming off a 17–10 win over Minnesota where the offense gained 315 yards?
Iowa did absolutely everything right in all facets of the game against Ohio State. Brian Ferentz called a masterful game and the offense clicked on all cylinders. Nate Stanley played mistake-free football, receivers and tight ends limited their drops, and the offensive line created gaping holes for the running backs while only allowing Stanley to be sacked once against arguably the most talented defensive line in the country. On the other side of the ball, the Hawks allowed for a couple big plays early in the game but really settled in and made life difficult for J.T. Barrett and co. And finally, special teams were special all game, including on a huge fake field goal on the drive that really put this one out of reach late in the third quarter.
In short, the coaching was excellent, the players executed, and Kinnick Stadium is still weird.
We always ask about injuries. Who’s out for the Hawkeyes this week, who’s back in, and how could that affect their game plan?
The only notable player that’s expected to miss the game against Wisconsin is safety Brandon Snyder, who came back from a torn ACL only to tear it again in his first game back. While the Hawkeyes don’t figure to be without many more key players, that doesn’t mean they won’t have some banged up guys this weekend—Josey Jewell hasn’t been 100 percent for a few weeks with a shoulder injury and James Butler is wearing a massive brace on his arm after dislocating his elbow, which has affected his ball control a bit. Outside this, Iowa has been pretty lucky of late in regard to the injury bug.
A lot’s been said about Nate Stanley, the Wisconsin native who committed to Iowa. How has he evolved this season, and what are the strengths of this offense?
Iowa didn’t get to see a whole lot of Stanley last year outside of garbage time, but after being locked in a quarterback competition for the entirety of fall camp, he’s shown he was the right choice for the job. He struggled a bit in his first game, throwing an interception and losing a few fumbles, but he’s really limited turnovers since. He’s thrown four interceptions on the year, but the majority of them have actually been the fault of his wide receivers. The one thing he’s really gotten better at over the course of the season has been his feel on the deep ball. Through the first half of the season, just about every deep ball he threw went one or two yards too long and it took him all the way until the Northwestern game to finally connect with one of his receivers on one. Since then, though, he’s hit on a few of them, including an absolute rainbow that supposedly went press box-high. His completion rate could stand to go up, as it’s just a meager 58.3 percent, but Iowa fans really have no complaints with him and think he could end up being one of the best to don the black and gold.
All that said, we’re living in a bizarre world where Iowa’s passing game is the strength of their offense. The offensive line has struggled to open up holes for Akrum Wadley and co., for the majority of the season, but have actually been really solid in pass protection. As a result, Stanley has had ample time to find the open receiver. The Hawkeyes have a couple interesting young weapons at wide receiver in Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who could win a foot race with just about anyone, and Nick Easley, who is a slightly faster version of Matt VandeBerg, to go along with VandeBerg himself. The real strength of the passing game, however, comes when the tight ends are called upon. Redshirt freshman T.J. Hockenson and sophomore Noah Fant are match-up nightmares for opposing defenses and Brian Ferentz loves to utilize them in the passing game—they combined for a slash line of 9/125/4 against Ohio State, and on the season, they’ve combined for a slash line of 42/625/10 with Fant tied for first in the nation in touchdown receptions at the tight end position with seven. Easley is probably Stanley’s favorite receiver, but he’s increasingly gone to his tight ends of late, with much success.
The defense gives up over 220 yards per game through the air but is third-best in the conference in pass defense efficiency and second in interceptions. Who along with Jewell and Joshua Jackson powers this unit?
Strong safety Amani Hooker has been extremely solid this season, although he’s had a couple hiccups in his first year with any real playing time on defense. He replaced Jake Gervase early in the season after Gervase struggled in pass defense, was benched when Snyder returned, then ended up replacing Miles Taylor after he proved to be ineffective in the same capacity. He’s solid in coverage and generally makes the right reads and while he has room to grow, he's the anchor at the back.
At linebacker, Ben Niemann is often overshadowed because of Jewell, but he’s been reliable this season. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and filled in admirably for Jewell when he missed the Northwestern game. The most important thing is that he’s really solid in pass coverage for a linebacker and often covers opposing wide receivers and tight ends due to Iowa’s tendency to play base 4–3 defense no matter the situation. You can expect to see him cover slot receivers and Troy Fumagalli this upcoming Saturday, and he’ll likely do a solid job.
The defensive line has a lot of talent on it, although it’s yet to come together consistently. Defensive end Anthony Nelson has terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of six sacks, while Parker Hesse has nine tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks himself. In pass-rushing situations, watch out for true freshman A.J. Epenesa—the former five-star recruit has 2.5 sacks in limited playing time, but leads the team with seven quarterback hits.
Where, in your opinion, has Iowa been exposed during the season?
Iowa’s run offense has been exposed many times this season because of an unwillingness to adapt when teams stack the box against them. The Hawkeyes are averaging only 3.9 yards per carry this season, which is really atypical for your standard Iowa team. They seemed to put it together against OSU and it would be nice to see them take advantage of a battered Wisconsin team this weekend, but it’s been a problem for them all season and reached a low point when they ran for just two yards per carry in their loss to Northwestern.
On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa’s secondary was exposed quite a bit early on in the season but has been better of late. The decision to start Hooker at strong safety over incumbent starter Taylor has paid huge dividends for the Hawks, while Gervase has been solid at free safety since taking over for Snyder a second time. Finding someone to start opposite Jackson has been a bit of an issue—Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia have played the bulk of the snaps at corner, but teams have been very willing to pick on them rather than attack Jackson, much like teams did to Greg Mabin when he played opposite Desmond King.
What are your keys to the game, and a score prediction?
On offense, the key to Iowa playing well is to go into this game with the same mindset they had against the Buckeyes. They’ve had a tendency to turtle on offense after taking a lead (or just straight up playing it safe rather than taking risks), but after dismantling Ohio State’s defense with a rock-solid game plan, it’d be great to see them do the same in Camp Randall. I’m sure Iowa will be more conservative in this one because it’s a road game, but if they’re willing to use play-action on first and second down with some frequency, it’ll keep the Badgers on their toes all game.
On the other side of the ball, the key has to be to stop Jonathan Taylor, doesn’t it? He’s been a stud this season and Iowa knows they need to key in on him in order to stop Wisconsin. Look for Iowa to stack the box against the Badgers and force Alex Hornibrook to beat them through the air until he shows he can do it. Iowa has the talent at linebacker and on the defensive line to slow down Taylor, although I’m not sure they’ll be able to keep him under 100 yards.
With all this in mind, I think Iowa can pull it off. They’ve won four of five in Camp Randall and I don’t think they’ll be fazed by playing a highly-ranked opponent on the road. Ferentz teams play best in November and after a momentum-building win against the Bucks, they should be plenty confident going into this one. I'll take the Hawks in a close one: Iowa 27, Wisconsin 23.