1. B5Q: Nice to see you guys again! What's the vibe around Iowa City entering this game? We haven't met since 2010 -- did you miss us?
Ross: Honestly, yes. The Iowa-Wisconsin series may not generate the amount of vitriol, scorn, or just downright bitter hatred that the Iowa State and Minnesota series bring to the table, but I think it's easily one of Iowa's most compelling rivalries. The absurd evenness in the series is part of that -- 42-42-2 -- but it's also a series that has produced a lot of close, exciting games in the last 10-15 years. This series has also featured some memorable moments, like Iowa clinching a Big Ten championship against the Badgers in 2004, Shonn Greene going bananas against them in 2008, Ron Dayne setting the NCAA rushing record against Iowa, and the goddamn fake punt in that goddamn 2010 game. So I'm very happy to see Wisconsin back on the schedule for Iowa and I'm even happier to know that they won't be leaving the schedule anytime soon, thanks to the (sensibly) realigned divisions in the Big Ten. Iowa-Wisconsin is a series that should be played every year and I'm glad that's once again the case. And now I hope we beat you by 30 on Saturday.
2. B5Q: Offensively, where does Iowa stand entering this game and what should we expect Saturday?
Ross: Uncertain. The offense was a four-alarm dumpster fire of sadness (and badness) last year, barely able to string together first downs, let alone scoring drives. It's been improved this year, but that improvement has kind of faded away in Big Ten play. They haven't scored more than 24 points in four B1G games so far and they've been held under 20 points in both B1G home games to date; getting stymied by the Michigan State defense is one thing, but floundering against the Northwestern defense is just a bit more frustrating. A lot of Iowa's early offensive success this year was predicated on a strong running game that allowed Iowa to control the clock; outside of the Minnesota game, though, the ground game has been a shadow of its earlier self. Better defenses certainly have played a factor there, as has a nagging ankle injury to lead RB Mark Weisman, but it's still disconcerting. My hunch is that we see a lot of three-tight end sets out of Iowa on Saturday; it's a formation they've used effectively against Ohio State and Northwestern and it gives a boost to the running game (by providing some additional capable blockers) and provides some sneaky-good options in the passing game (since Iowa's tight ends are the best part of the passing game this season). Hopefully that gets the Iowa offense going.
3. B5Q: Defensively?
Ross: Legendary defensive coordinator Norm Parker has retired since the last time you saw Iowa, but things haven't changed too much under his replacement, former Iowa defensive backs coach Phil Parker (no relation). Iowa still plays a fairly basic 4-3, with two deep safeties and a lot of cover-2/quarters coverage. The cornerbacks will still give opposing receivers pretty decent-sized cushions, especially on short routes. The biggest difference in the Iowa defense this year is probably an increased willingness to blitz -- mainly from the linebacker positions, but we've also seen a few corner blitzes. Of course, the main reason we've seen more blitzes this year is because the defensive line has had a very difficult time generating a pass rush on their own. The Iowa defense is coming off a six-sack performance against Northwestern, though, so perhaps the pass rush is finally improving. The Iowa defense had made up for its so-so pass rush by being very stout against the run through the first half of the season, but both Ohio State and Northwestern ripped them apart on the ground the last two weeks. That's not exactly an encouraging sign with Wisconsin coming to town.
4. B5Q: Could you give us on player on each side of the ball that could have a deciding impact on the game? Bonus points for under-the-radar guys.
Ross: On offense, the guys who will play the most significant roles will probably be QB Jake Rudock, RB Mark Weisman, and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (one of Iowa's top receiving threats and a player who's caught a TD in three straight games entering this contest), but if you're looking for a more under-the-radar guy... let's go with WR Damond Powell. He's a JUCO transfer averaging over 27 yards/catch and he's got speed to burn -- speed the likes of which teams like Iowa almost never have. He's been quiet in Big Ten play since taking a bubble screen 80 yards to the end zone against Minnesota, but he has the sort of game-breaking speed that Iowa will need to exploit to pull off an upset on Saturday.
On defense, the main men are the linebackers -- James Morris, Christian Kirksey, and Anthony Hitchens. They've been the leaders on defense all season and for Iowa to win, they'll need to play very well this week. But I'm going to tab defensive tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis because they're going to need to have very big games against the Badger offensive lo slow down that Wisconsin rushing attack. If Morris, Kirksey, and Hitchens are only making tackles six or seven yards downfield, that doesn't do much for Iowa. The best way to avoid that is for Trinca-Pasat and Davis to get some penetration and blow up a few rushing plays at the line of scrimmage (or, preferably, in the Wisconsin backfield).
5. B5Q: I think most non-Hawkeye Big Ten fans enjoy Iowa City already, but what would be the ideal Friday night/Saturday morning pre-game for Wisconsin fans making the trip?
Ross: Hmm, the ideal Friday night/Saturday morning? I'd probably recommend grabbing a burger at Shorts (owned by former Hawkeye great Nate Kaeding) or some pizza at The Airliner (conveniently located almost right next to each other), and then checking out some of the bars downtown Iowa City has to offer. If you're looking for an older crowd and/or a more laid back vibe, hit up Joe's Place, Mickey's, or BoJames. If you're looking for a younger crowd and a more frenetic vibe, hit up The Union or Brothers. And if you just want to get your weird on, you can always drop by the Deadwood.
After you've boozed the night away, you'll probably want to get some more food -- to absorb the alcohol, if nothing else. The food vendors located in the Ped Mall area are a solid option (you wold never pay $6 for a grilled cheese from Marco's while sober, but it seems like a splendid idea when you're drunk), but it's hard to pass up a trip to Panchero's for a little late-night burrito action. As for Saturday, I recommend waking up bright and early and heading over to Hamburg Inn No.2, an Iowa City institution and home of some excellent breakfast options (and pie-shakes, but you might not want a pie-shake for breakfast). After filling up at Hamburg, head across the river to Kinnick Stadium and check out the tailgating scene all around the stadium. It sprawls into various streets and neighborhoods near the stadium, so there's plenty to see and do (and drink). And if you work up a little hunger before the game (or perhaps immediately after the game), the food vendors on Melrose are worth checking out, too -- it's hard to say no to a pork tenderloin bigger than your face.
6. B5Q: Do you have a prediction?
Ross: I've only picked against Iowa once this year, when Iowa headed to Columbus to take on the mighty Buckeyes. And for three quarters, they surprised the hell out of me. Wisconsin appears to be pretty easily the second-best team Iowa has played so far this season (give or take your feelings about Michigan State, I suppose), so I expect a very tough game on Saturday. I would like to predict that this is the game where Iowa figures things out, puts together a complete performance for 60 minutes, and knocks off a top-25 team with their best showing of the year... but after watching Ohio State and Northwestern gobble up rushing yards against Iowa, I have a hard time seeing how the Iowa defense slows down the Badger ground game enough to pull off the upset. I think it's a close game for three quarters, with Wisconsin adding a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull away. Wisconsin 31, Iowa 21.