The Wisconsin Badgers (5-3 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) appear to be clicking at the right time. On Saturday, Paul Chryst and company won their fourth game in a row and second consecutive win over a ranked opponent in a 27-7 beat down of No. 9 Iowa.
Not only did the victory secure the Heartland Trophy for the seventh time since 2013, but it also kept Wisconsin's Big Ten West title hopes alive.
Let’s take a look back at some of the key takeaways from the conference victory for the Badgers.
Defense wins again
It’s hard to come up with something new to say about this Badgers defense. They have been downright amazing all year long and seem to get better each week. I mean Iowa only recorded TWO first downs in the first half, and one of them came on a penalty.
The defense held Iowa to only 2.8 yards per play and absolutely stifled the Iowa rushing offense. The Hawkeyes only managed 24 yards on the ground on 30 carries and they made quarterback Spencer Petras uncomfortable all game long.
Inside linebacker Leo Chenal once again led the way with nine tackles, but it was a complete team effort. Nick Herbig recorded 2.5 sacks and also forced a crucial fumble that set the Badgers up in plus territory, while Noah Burks has come on as of late as well. Burks got to Petras for a sack once as well, and he recovered a fumble that led to a Wisconsin touchdown inside the five-yard line.
Along the defensive line, Isaiah Mullens continues to emerge, while Keeanu Benton battled through an injury to record a quarterback hurry and a fumble recovery.
In the secondary, Iowa was only able to complete 12 passes, for 132 yards.
All in all, it was a tremendous performance by the defense. They have done a much better job of taking advantage of turnover opportunities the past few weeks, and they continue to show out as one of the top defenses in the entire country. Their ability to adapt over the past three weeks against three very different opponents has been really impressive, and that is a testament to the players and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
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The true freshman tailback notched his fourth straight 100-yard rushing performance, this time against an Iowa defense that was yet to allow a back over the century mark all season long.
Allen’s balance and ability to bounce off tacklers is really impressive. Add on the fact that he seemingly improves week over week, and it appears the Badgers have a good one. He did a much better job of preparing for contact with two hands after fumbling twice against Purdue, which highlights coachability and a desire to get better at a young age.
Allen’s emergence definitely coincides with improved play along the offensive line for the Badgers as well. The big guys up front were able to open up some running lanes, and also did a much better job of keeping Graham Mertz upright. Mertz had a fairly clean pocket all day long, even with starting left guard Josh Seltzner out.
The offense is far from a masterpiece at this point, but Wisconsin’s ability to lean on what the offensive line does best (RUN THE DAMN BALL) and their 238-pound freshman ball carrier seem to be a winning recipe of late.
Turnovers and special teams
Through the first four weeks of the season, Iowa and Wisconsin were in very different spots. The Hawkeyes were undefeated, living off turnovers generated by their defense and a sound special teams unit. The Badgers on the other hand lost three of their first four games and were ranked dead last in the country in turnover margin, with multiple egregious errors in special teams as well.
That script was completely flipped on Saturday.
The Badgers were able to take care of the football, while Iowa had three game-changing turnovers.
The first fumble came on an amazing individual effort by Nick Herbig. The edge rusher was able to slip around the right tackle and knock the ball out of the hands of Spencer Petras. The second came on an Ivory Kelly-Martin fumble near their own goal line that was recovered by Noah Burks.
Iowa then had a terrible muffed punt by Max Cooper, their reserve punt returner, that set the Badgers up with great field position at the Hawkeye 18-yard line in the second quarter that pushed the Wisconsin lead to 20-0.
I thought that Dean Engram did a much better job as the primary punt returner for the Badgers yesterday. Another key player that looked better was Graham Mertz. He made some nice throws early in the game and looked very comfortable. Statistically, he was not perfect, and he missed a couple of throws that I’m sure he wishes he could have another chance at, but unlike Petras he did not hurt his team with costly turnovers.
If the Wisconsin defense can continue to be opportunistic on the defensive side of the ball and get to the quarterback like they have been lately, and the offense can limit mistakes, this team will have a great chance of finishing strong this season. On to Rutgers.