For the first time since 2010, the Wisconsin Badgers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) face the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2). If they are to win, the Badgers are going to have to look for options other than punter Brad Nortman.
Iowa has come a long way from last year's 4-8 (2-6) record and has looked mightily impressive so far this season. After nearly knocking off Ohio State in Columbus two weeks ago, the Hawkeyes defeated Northwestern (once thought to be a big victory, but now not so much) in overtime, 17-10, this past week.
Here are three things to know about this weekend's matchup with a much improved Iowa squad.
Nothing to bOast about
The Hawkeyes are the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten not named Purdue.
Averaging just 27.1 points per game, Iowa has scored more than 28 points in a game just once this season (59 against Western Michigan).
It's not as if the offense is getting the ball with bad field position each possession, because the Hawkeyes are best in the conference in punt return yardage, averaging 20.8 yards per return -- 5.7 yards more than the next best team, Indiana.
It's not as if the offense is getting set back by opposing teams applying pressure and sacking quarterback Jake Rudock, because the Hawkeyes are best in the conference in sacks allowed as opponents have only been able to get to Rudock 20 times in eight games.
And it's not as if the offense can't move the ball down the field because they can't pick up a third down, because the Hawkeyes are second-best in the conference in third-down conversion percentage at 49.2 percent.
At first glance, Iowa's offensive scoring struggles seem like they don't fit based on the statistics listed above, but when digging a little deeper the answer is fairly simple. The Hawkeyes struggle in the red zone.
Posting a 74.2 scoring percentage inside the opposing 20-yard line, the Hawkeyes again find themselves the worst in the Big Ten not including Purdue. Of their 31 red zone trips, 16 have ended in touchdowns, seven in field goals, two in fumbles, two in turnover on downs and one in an interception.
Those numbers are not expected to increase this weekend, as the Badgers are best in the Big Ten in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score on just 76.5 percent of trips inside the 20. In fact, Wisconsin has allowed just two passing touchdowns from inside the red zone all year -- fewest in the conference -- so scoring through the air will be hard to come by for Rudock & co.
Running back Mark Weisman leads the Hawkeyes in rushing, averaging 91.5 yards per game, good for fourth in the Big Ten. On the receiving end of things, wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley leads the Hawkeyes with 32 receptions for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Martin-Manley also is the team's punt returner and is averaging 24.2 yards on his 10 returns, with two touchdowns as a result. He is the only player in the Big Ten to score a touchdown on a punt return so far this season, let alone two, so the Badgers need to bring their best game special teams wise in order to contain the 6'1, 205-pound speedster.
Defense carrying Hawkeyes
Porous as the Iowa offense has been, the team still holds a record above .500, which says a lot about the defense Kirk Ferentz is putting out on the field.
Through eight games this season, the Hawkeyes have conceded 30 or more points just twice (one of five Big Ten teams to do so) and both times were to teams currently ranked in the top 20 of the latest BCS standings (Northern Illinois and Ohio State). Eight games into the season, Iowa is allowing just 18.1 points per game, third in the Big Ten behind Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens leads the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten as a whole on the defensive side of the ball with 79 total tackles. The 6'1, 233-pound linebacker's 9.9 tackles per game put him at second-best in the conference, though they still lead the team.
The true test for the Hawkeyes' defense, as it is for a majority of teams going up against the Badgers, will not be in stopping the Big Ten's seventh-ranked passing offense, but in trying to halt the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Iowa ranks second in the Big Ten in passing defense and fifth in rush defense. Both numbers are scary for Wisconsin fans, but if one is to figure that Wisconsin is most similar to Michigan State and Ohio State in terms of teams Iowa played this season, a sign of relief is appropriate.
Michigan State ran for a respectable 135 yards on 37 attempts (3.6 yards per rush), though the Badgers would like to get more. Ideally, the Badgers are looking to have a ground game comparable to what the Buckeyes had against Iowa.
Ohio State ran for 273 yards and two touchdowns on 51 attempts (5.4 yards per rush). Both Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller ran for over 100 yards. The two rushing touchdowns -- the first and only two rushing touchdowns the Hawkeyes have allowed this season -- would be way below Wisconsin's average of 3.4 per game, but the 273 would be about one Melvin Gordon long touchdown scamper larger than usual.
In 2010, the Badgers ran for 142 yards and three touchdowns with John Clay leading the way. Clay had 91 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries in that game.
The Heartland Trophy
Through the 119-year history between the two schools, Iowa and Wisconsin have played to an even 42-42-2 draw. Perhaps even more incredibly, the average score in their meetings is 17.6-17.1 in favor of Wisconsin.
Recent series history
|Oct 23, 2010
|Oct 17, 2009
|Oct 18, 2008
|Sep 22, 2007
|Nov 11, 2006
Beginning in 2004, Iowa and Wisconsin started to play for the Heartland Trophy. Since its inception, the Hawkeyes hold a 4-3 advantage and history has shown that the Badgers are due for a victory with Iowa winning the first two in 2004 (30-7) and 2005 (20-10); Wisconsin winning in 2006 (24-21) and 2007 (17-13); and Iowa in 2008 (38-16) and 2009 (20-10). A 2010 victory (31-30) means that if the trend continues, the Badgers will win their second in a row this coming Saturday.
The last nine meetings have seen Iowa emerge victorious in six, with a winning margin of 14.67 points. In Wisconsin's three victories, the Badgers have only won by an average of 2.67 points. In fact, the Badgers have not beaten the Hawkeyes by more than six points since 1999, when they won 41-3. The five Badger victories since 2000 have seen an average margin of victory of just four points per game.
Wisconsin is hoping to clinch its 12th consecutive season with at least six wins, but in order to do so the Badgers are going to have to get by a tough Iowa team that is playing its best football in recent memory. In their second-to-last road game of the season, the Badgers are in a position where they need to get their resume in order for evaluation at season's end.
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