Trophy season is back! Wisconsin was able to take care of business and keep the Heartland Trophy in Madison for another year. The No. 13 Wisconsin Badgers (7-2 overall, 4-2 B1G) stood strong on a two-point conversion attempt by Nate Stanley to secure the victory 24-22 over the No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-3 overall, 3-3 B1G).
In this weekly installment, here are three items that I think we learned about the Badgers after their game Saturday.
Offensive line reboot
In the last two games leading up to Iowa, Wisconsin struggled to move the ball on the ground against Illinois and Ohio State. The Badgers only averaged 119.5 yards rushing per game in those two contests, a big reason for the back-to-back losses. The normally impressive Wisconsin offensive line was unable to generate holes for Jonathan Taylor and company to run through. In addition to scuffling with the running game, the offensive line allowed seven sacks in those two games as well.
That changed in a major way on Saturday against Iowa. Jonathan Taylor ran for 250 yards on the ground, and averaged an astounding 8.1 yards per carry. As a team, the Badgers accumulated 300 yards rushing, a stark improvement from the two previous losses.
The offensive line allowed only one sack on the game as well, albeit a strip-sack of Jack Coan by A.J. Epenesa. Either way, the offensive line looked truer to form on Saturday against an Iowa front seven that ranked ninth in the nation against the run prior to Wisconsin.
There are still some errors that need to be cleaned up on the offensive line, and for the offense in total, but overall it was a welcomed sight to see the Badgers running the ball well once again.
One thing that jumped out to me during the game was the use of true freshman Leo Chenal in pass rushing situations. After missing a few games due to head injuries this season, Chenal was on the field more against Iowa.
Leo Chenal meets tailback Toren Young in the gap, recording the tackle. Chenal had one TFL. pic.twitter.com/dg6RLu1KDG— B5Qphotos (@B5Qphotos) November 10, 2019
Iowa has two of the better offensive tackles in the country with Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs both expected to be drafted in the early half of the NFL draft come April. The guard position, however, is a relative position of weakness for the Hawkeyes.
Knowing this Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard employed three inside linebackers routinely in passing situations. Chenal showed the ability in fall camp to rush the passer very well, knifing into the backfield at times to cause havoc. While Chenal was unable to record a sack against Iowa, he had a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry while on the field.
It will be interesting to see if this package will be used again going forward, as Leo Chenal appears to be a crucial future piece for the Badgers, and he can really run downhill as a blitzer.
Eric Burrell is all of Wisconsin after that stop on the two-point conversion. pic.twitter.com/St0GApJTlx— George Balekji NBC15 (@GeorgeBalekji) November 10, 2019
In the first quarter of the game Saturday, the Wisconsin offense made four pre-snap penalties. The early penalties ultimately killed the first three offensive possessions, and helped Iowa jump out to a quick lead.
On the first play of the game Quintez Cephus had a false start that Jack Coan was able to make up for. But after moving the ball well on Iowa, an illegal formation penalty on 2nd and three yards to go stalled the offense and led to a punt.
On the second offensive possession, Wisconsin utilized a nice wrinkle with A.J. Taylor lining up in the backfield similar to how Randall Cobb used to do for the Packers, but he left early after motioning over to the slot. The initial motion worked to perfection, as Taylor was matched up with a linebacker prior to his false start. The penalty though backed Wisconsin up to third and 12 to go in their own territory, and Coan was stripped. That possession may have looked very differently if Taylor does not move early.
On the third time possessing the ball the Badgers marched down the field running the ball. Wisconsin decided to go for it on fourth down and two on the Iowa eight yard line. Unfortunately, David Moorman had a false start, and Wisconsin was forced to kick a field goal. Collin Larsh missed the attempt.
Those first three drives hampered Wisconsin all day. The Badgers could have easily been well ahead of Iowa at that juncture if the pre-snap penalties didn’t crush momentum on each drive. All four of the penalties were mental mistakes that need to be cleaned up prior to the road contest with Nebraska next weekend.