The No. 25 Wisconsin Badgers (2-2 overall) are set to play their final regular season game of the 2020 season in Iowa City against the No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes (5-2 overall) on Saturday. The two teams have battled for the Heartland Trophy since 2004, although the rivalry is over 100 years old, and the Badgers have won four matchups in a row.
What can we expect from the Hawkeyes this year? Well, we didn’t know and thankfully our pal Jonah Parker at Black Heart Gold Pants was able to answer our questions and give us some insight before Saturday’s kickoff.
Just because I’m curious, where does Wisconsin rank among Iowa’s trophy game rivals?
That’s a really interesting question and I think you would get a different answer from just about every Hawkeye fan you ask. Here’s my take: Iowa fans WANT to win the Wisconsin game more than any other rivalry game, but the matchups with Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa State feel like they are MUST wins if only because their fanbases can be so intolerable if and when they eventually do win. The pig is probably the most coveted of trophies given its history and the fact it’s a massive metal pig, but I would guess in terms of pure fan hatred, it’s a tossup between Iowa State and Nebraska.
Having said all that, winning the Heartland Trophy has bigger meaning because Iowa hasn’t done it since 2015. Beating Wisconsin means something that winning those other matchups typically has not. You don’t beat Wisconsin when you have a down year so a win means you have a quality team and are likely in the hunt for the West (can we just agree Northwestern is the worst?) (Editor’s note: yes.), which is obviously what Iowa fans would want more than anything.
How’s that for a non-answer?
What is it about QB Spencer Petras that makes Iowa fans uneasy? What is he better at than Nate Stanley?
I’m going to restrain myself from spending 2000 words on just this answer and try to keep it as concise as I can. I think the best way to do that is to take the second part first, because to me it really fuels the answer to the first part of the question.
From the moment Spencer Petras committed to Iowa, he was expected to come in and replace Nate Stanley eventually. Once he was on campus, all we heard was that he looked a lot like Stanley but with more touch and the ability to connect on downfield passes. Given that talk, most Iowa fans were excited about this season given the arsenal of skill players that rivals any the Hawkeyes have had in at least a decade.
We have not seen that at all to-date, which is incredibly frustrating. Worse, the redshirt sophomore has had happy feet in the pocket feeling pressure that isn’t there and making poor decisions once he gets off schedule. And we’ve seen him miss wide-open receivers at every level of the passing tree, over throwing guys that are 10-15 yards downfield, burying passes in the dirt on shorter routes and firing rockets off the hands of receivers and defenders alike on both short and intermediate routes.
That all culminated with one of the worst quarters of quarterbacking we’ve seen in a while during the first quarter of the matchup with Illinois leading even the most optimistic among us (which is where I probably fall) to start calling for a change. But Petras didn’t fold and came back to put together his best performance of the year the next three quarters and mount a comeback with 35-straight points against the Illini. The question now is which version we see the rest of the way.
Who can be a potential game-breaker for the Hawkeyes on offense? The Badgers don’t give up a lot of yards, but they can be beaten for the rare big play so who should we be on the lookout for?
Completely off-brand for Iowa, the Hawkeyes actually have quite a few game-breakers on the offense. Wisconsin fans should recall Tyrone Tracy, the redshirt sophomore who hauled in a 75-yard touchdown catch last season to pull Iowa within two.
Tracy is actually the fourth receiver and not as explosive as senior Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who is Iowa’s fastest, most dynamic playmaker. He was a preseason All-American at kick returner, but teams have largely just kicked away from him all season. On the offensive side, we saw just what he is capable of with his three touchdown performance against USC in the Holiday Bowl a season ago. He has been limited offensively by the struggles of Petras, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been beating defenders downfield and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz continues to work in ways to get him touches in the run game.
The other receiver to note is Charlie Jones. Not because he’s likely to light up the stat sheet with receptions as Iowa’s fifth receiver, but because he’s the punt returner that has been incredibly dynamic all season. Jones is top-10 nationally in punt return average and has had multiple big returns, including a 54-yard return for a touchdown against Michigan State.
And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention running back Tyler Goodson. He’s Iowa’s leading rusher, averaging just under 95 yards per game on the ground, and he’s the most dynamic runner the Hawkeyes have had since Akrum Wadley. He has good pass-catching ability out of the backfield that feels like it has been under-utilized, but Ferentz has finally implemented some wildcat looks to feature Goodson and fellow backs Mekhi Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin together. Iowa has had some success with that of late, particularly late against Illinois in the four-minute drill. Speculation around Iowa City is we’ll see a throw out of that set against the Badgers either from Goodson or the aforementioned Smith-Marsette.
Indiana and Northwestern both had success confusing Graham Mertz, what will the Hawkeyes defense do to make life difficult for him?
Iowa’s defense this season has been a very pleasant surprise. As noted, the expectations preseason were for the offense to be as dynamic as one could expect from the Hawkeyes, but the defense lost a lot to the NFL and graduation leaving serious question marks. Those have largely been answered at this point and the takeaway is that Phil Parker should never be doubted.
The defense has done more this year than I can recall in terms of mixing in coverages and disguising things pre-snap. With the loss of a dynamic edge rusher like A.J. Epenesa, the concern was Iowa couldn’t generate pressure up front and it seems Parker has chosen to mitigate that by creating confusion for opposing quarterbacks and hoping to create a pass rush with linebackers, defensive backs and twists up front.
That has led to Iowa creating the second-most turnovers in the Big Ten (behind Indiana) with 16 (2.3 per game) and the second-most sacks per game in the Big Ten (again behind Indiana) at 2.9 per game. I would expect Parker to lean in heavily on that same gameplan this week trying to rotate coverages post-snap, mixing in more press man coverage than Iowa has traditionally and creating pressure through zone blitzes, which have been very effective given the athleticism on Iowa’s defensive line. That’s headlined by Chauncey Golston and Wisconsin native Daviyon Nixon, who may be the top defensive lineman in the country this year (I’m clearly a home, but he’s the only player in the country named a finalist for the Nagurski and semifinalist for the Outland and Bednarik).
What changed after the first two games of the season (both losses for Iowa) that the Hawks have now run off five straight wins?
It’s really interesting objectively and highly frustrating subjectively as an Iowa fan. Put simply, basically, nothing was different against Purdue vs. the games that have gone in Iowa’s favor from a gameplan standpoint. Iowa dominated both sides of the ball but committed the third most penalties of the Ferentz era and managed to fumble twice on the Purdue 10-yard line.
As frustrating as that game was, Northwestern was much worse. Iowa was spotted a 17-0 lead thanks to turnovers and for whatever reason, Brian Ferentz had Spencer Petras, in his second career start, drop back to pass 53 times. Fifty. Three. After being up 17-0. It was absurd and it cost Iowa a win and potentially a shot at the Big Ten West title.
Since then, we’ve seen the offense settle into what it was against Purdue, minus the mental errors. The running game has been chugging along, averaging 194 yards per game during the winning streak (they had 195 against Purdue). Petras has not been great, but they’ve found ways to utilize what he can do well, which is rhythm throws on his first read, to keep defenses honest. And we’ve seen the defense really turn things on, as noted already.
Game prediction and MVP for Iowa, please.
There’s a part of me that really thinks Iowa wins this only because it would leave us pulling our hair out for a generation about the stupidity of the losses to Purdue and Northwestern and how we could have played in the championship game this season. But there are major concerns about Brian Ferentz being able to put together a game plan that works against the Badgers defense.
I fully expect Wisconsin to sell out to stop the run and force Spencer Petras to beat them. That’s a major issue. And on the other side, I think we’ve seen Graham Mertz flash the ability to keep defenses honest and Iowa’s defense has been susceptible to straight-ahead running at times this year (Purdue gashed Iowa with a glorified fullback early in the year).
If the Hawkeyes are going to win this, it will be on the back of the defense. The most likely way to get there is another stellar performance from Daviyon Nixon where he creates havoc for Mertz and eats up blockers in the run game. I do think this one is ugly and weird and everything we’ve come to expect from an Iowa-Wisconsin game, but I’m not ready to call for an Iowa win yet.
Wisconsin 17, Iowa 13 with a pick-six from someone in there. (Editor’s note: I basically picked the opposite score in my answers on BHGP, lol.)