To start the Big Ten conference schedule off on the right foot, and presumably with a lot on the line for the West division, the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers head three hours southwest to face the Iowa Hawkeyes in a primetime match-up on Saturday.
Iowa (3–0) dismantled Northern Iowa in a 38–14 win last weekend and has picked up wins over Northern Illinois and Iowa State to begin its 2018 campaign.
With the season-opening win over the Huskies, Kirk Ferentz became the Hawkeyes’ all-time head coach wins leader in his 20th season.
Here’s who and what to watch for on Saturday.
“Very talented quarterback. Good group of running backs,” redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson said about Iowa’s offense on Wednesday. “Very good group of tight ends, probably one of the best tight ends in the country in ‘87’ [Noah Fant]. Experienced group of wide receivers where they got most of the guys coming back from last year. So very experienced group. Looking forward to that challenge going against those guys and it’ll be fun.”
Two Wisconsin-born Hawkeyes in quarterback Nate Stanley and running back Toren Young are prominent in the Iowa backfield. Stanley, from Menomonie, has completed 63.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions through three games. Young, a Madison product who played at Monona Grove, leads the team in rushing with 234 yards and has played in 10 career games as a sophomore.
Running back Ivory Kelly-Martin has missed two games due to injury, but sophomore Mekhi Sargent leads the team in rushing touchdowns (three).
Leading the team in receptions are tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson (12 each). Fant is a preseason All-American who has been named to the John Mackey and Walter Camp preseason watch lists. When asked if the two present similar problems like last year, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard noted they are “big problems.”
“They’re very talented,” Leonhard said. “Obviously, Fant is one of the best, if not the best tight end in the country in my eyes. Extremely talented. What he can do in the pass game is pretty special. Then Hockenson is kind of a utility guy. They use him a lot of different ways. They can do a lot of things with him, so they’re guys you have to know where they’re at. They do a great job in that offense of using them to the best of their abilities and giving them a chance to succeed. They’re definitely a big issue for us.”
The offensive line boasts senior center Keegan Render, a Rimington Trophy watch list candidate who has played in 42 career games. Sophomore left tackle Alaric Jackson earned FWAA Freshman All-America honors last season.
Despite losing standouts Josh Jackson and Josey Jewell, the Hawkeyes have reloaded to dominate opponents early on. The stats are impressive early on entering this week:
- Leading the Big Ten and second in the nation in scoring defense (eight points per game)
- Leading the Big Ten and second in the FBS in total defense (209.0 yards per game)
- Second in the conference and nation in rushing defense (42 yards per game), including holding ball carriers to a 1.5 yards per carry average (second in conference, third in nation)
- Second in the Big Ten in sacks (12) behind Penn State
The accolades include holding Iowa State running back Mike Montgomery to 44 yards on 16 carries in a 13–3 win two weeks ago and also containing their last two opponents to 25 combined rushing yards.
Iowa’s defensive line has stood out early on, with 10 of the 12 team sacks coming from this position group. That is led by A.J. Epenesa, who already has four through three games. The line also boasts two players 6’7 or taller in Anthony Nelson (6’7) and Matt Nelson (6’8), who have combined to play in 71 games heading into Saturday’s contest. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told reporters on Tuesday that position group is “mature, very experienced.”
“I think their defensive line is playing great,” Rudolph said. “Seeing them on film, seeing what their defense is doing, they really are. They’re playing outstanding, so it will be a great challenge.”
The Hawkeyes’ linebacking corp has started five different players in the first quarter of the regular season with three different starting combinations. Sophomore Nick Niemann, whose brother, Ben, now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, is the only player to start all three games at the position so far in 2018.
Safeties Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker have played 34 and 26 career games, respectively. The former walked on to Iowa during the 2014 season and has started nine consecutive games, while Hooker recorded an interception in the season opener against Northern Illinois.
Cornerback Michael Ojemudia also tallied an interception last week against Northern Iowa.
Redshirt senior kicker Miguel Recinos has connected on only four of seven field-goal attempts so far this season.
Punter Colten Rastetter is averaging 45.4 yards per attempt.