Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Complete Game Preview
The battle for the Heartland Trophy resumes after a two-year hiatus when the No. 24 Wisconsin Badgers travel to Iowa City to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes this Saturday.
Back in 2010, the Badgers (5-2, 3-1) also made the trek west to Iowa, and the result was a classic. Thanks to a fake punt in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin was able to drive down and score the winning touchdown to defeat the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2), 31-30 en route to a Rose Bowl appearance.
These two teams always tend to fight it out until the final whistle, and this occasion should be no different. After giving Ohio State all it could handle back on Oct. 19, Iowa defeated Northwestern the following week to climb within one win of returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
With division realignment coming in 2014, this rivalry will become an annual tradition once again, and the Heartland Trophy has clearly added some luster to this meeting. The Badgers won't want to relinquish their grasp on the hog, and they have an extra week to prepare after coming off their second bye week in the past month.
Wisconsin will look to win its third consecutive game and keep its BCS bowl hopes alive, while the Hawkeyes are attempting to become bowl-eligible. Check out the keys to victory, players to watch and a prediction in the complete game preview.
Day, Time: Saturday at 11 a.m. CT
Place: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
TV: ABC or ESPN2
Spread: Wisconsin -9.5 (via OddsShark.com)
Wisconsin's Keys to Victory
Establish the run
Since when doesn't Wisconsin try and establish the run? Well, that's a valid point, but going up against the Iowa defense will be the toughest test yet for the Badgers' offense this season.
Only Ohio State statistically has a better run defense than Iowa among teams Wisconsin has played this season, as the Hawkeyes are No. 5 in the B1G, allowing 128.6 rushing yards per game. Nobody in the conference runs the ball better than the Badgers, and with Iowa sporting the No. 2 pass defense in the Big Ten, Wisconsin needs to get the ground game going to open up the play-action for Joel Stave.
Shore up the secondary
With the game well in hand against Illinois back on Oct. 19, things began to unravel in the Wisconsin secondary. In fact, the defensive backfield has doubled as a leaky cauldron on multiple occasions this season and can arguably be blamed for each of the Badgers' two losses.
Somehow, Wisconsin still has the No. 3 pass defense in the B1G, but giving up 319 passing yards to the Fighting Illini was a bit of a concern. The Hawkeyes feature a below-average passing game, so this could be an opportunity for Dezmen Southward and Co. to bounce back from a lackluster performance in Week 8.
Take the crowd out of it
Kinnick Stadium can be a hostile environment, but when the team that plays there is playing well, it doesn't make things any easier for the visitors. The crowd is right on top of the field, and with the Hawkeyes playing better than many expected them to this season, it's going to be loud in Iowa City.
If Wisconsin can come out with guns blazing like it did against Illinois, and especially if Melvin Gordon, the one-time Iowa commit, can bust out some big plays, the Badgers will be well on their way to victory.
Iowa's Keys to Victory
Take some shots down field
As we just covered, the Badgers have their issues in the back end of the defense. Iowa has relative success rushing the football, but Wisconsin's front seven is experienced and tenacious—it won't be easy for the Hawkeyes to move the ball on the ground.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock is slowly coming along as a passer for Iowa, and he's certainly competent enough to take his shots at the Wisconsin secondary and see if he can't help break a big play. Speedster Damond Powell could be someone to keep an eye on—he has only nine catches in 2013, but they have resulted in 248 yards.
Stay within itself on defense
Most teams need to make a concerted effort to stack the box and slow the Badgers' run game, but Iowa is near the top of the conference in stopping the run. Not only that, but the Hawkeyes are one of the best in the B1G defending the pass, as well.
There's no question that Wisconsin features potent threats at receiver in Jared Abbrederis and at tailback in Melvin Gordon, and they are special players that have big-play ability. But the Iowa defense has an ability of its own, and it needs to trust that ability rather than change its approach against Wisconsin.
Keep it close
The Hawkeyes' worst defeat this season came at the hands of Michigan State back on Oct. 5—a 12-point loss. They have been in every game this season and managed to go 2-1 in games decided by a possession.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, has had its struggles pulling out games that go down to the wire. Iowa's defense has done a tremendous job of keeping it in every game, and if the Hawkeyes can find a way to inch ahead in the fourth quarter, they could very well lock down the Badgers and hold on for the upset.
Players to Watch on Wisconsin
Joel Stave is a sophomore quarterback, and he will throw an errant pass from time to time. But when you play in the same state as a guy named Aaron Rodgers, there are some high expectations placed upon you, and if you didn't know any better, you'd think Stave was having a terrible season.
Well, he's completing 63.5 percent of his passes and has 13 TDs to go with 6 INTs. That's not all that bad, and Stave has improved from a season ago. He's also steadily progressing as the season has moved along, and he will face a stiff test when he goes up against a tough Iowa pass defense.
If he can pass this challenge, maybe he will finally fall into the good graces of Badger fans.
Once upon a time, Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon verbally committed to the University of Iowa. But a desire to stay closer to home led Gordon to Madison, and this will be the first time the redshirt sophomore visits Kinnick Stadium.
You better believe Gordon is going to hear it from the Iowa faithful. Statistically, Gordon has been the best back in the country this season, but the Hawkeye defense should have a little extra motivation knowing Gordon decommitted from Iowa.
It will be the matchup to watch on Saturday.
Through seven games, true freshman Sojourn Shelton has proven that he is the most talented cornerback on the roster. He leads the Badgers with three interceptions and six passes defended, and while there have been some growing pains for Shelton, he's been reliable.
He needs to help an iffy Wisconsin secondary lock it down against the Hawkeyes, because that unit doesn't want to be at fault for a third defeat on the season, and more importantly, knocking the Badgers out of BCS bowl contention.
Players to Watch on Iowa
The Hawkeyes are talented and experienced at linebacker, and one of the three seniors to play the position for Iowa is James Morris. He is the team's leader in tackles and sacks, and he is also second in tackles for a loss to fellow linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
The performance of Morris, who is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, and the senior linebacker trio will be crucial in slowing down the Badgers' potent rushing attack.
Speaking of seniors, defensive back B.J. Lowery is another important component of the Hawkeye defense and helps to hold the fort down in the secondary. Lowery, along with the aforementioned Morris, leads the team in interceptions and has five more passes defended than any other Hawkeye.
If not for Michigan State, Iowa would have the top passing defense in the Big Ten. Lowery has a lot to do with that, and if the Hawkeyes are able to force the Badgers to go to the air often, it will be largely on Lowery's shoulders to help Iowa pull off the upset.
Sophomore running back Melvin Gordon has been getting plenty of praise for his performance in 2013, but there's another sophomore tailback getting it done in the B1G—Mark Weisman.
Last season, Gordon caught some flak from Iowa's fanbase because it was Weisman seeing more of the field, and through eight games, Weisman has nearly matched his rushing total from a season ago. That total is nowhere near what Gordon has put up this season, but it will be interesting to see who gets the last laugh on Saturday.
What They Are Saying
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen on the status of star linebacker Chris Borland, who exited the game against Illinois with a hamstring injury (via Zach Heilprin of ESPN Wisconsin):
Gary Andersen says he expects Chris Borland to play at Iowa this week. Unsure how much he'll practice. #Badgers— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 28, 2013
“They’re probably over it, but we’ll see.” - Melvin Gordon on how Hawkeyes fans feel about his decision to decommit from Iowa (via Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal).
Iowa features the best return man in the nation in Kevonte Martin-Manley, and Wisconsin is allowing just under seven yards per game on punt returns. How will the Badgers' attempt to tame Martin-Manley?
"[Special teams coach Jeff Genyk] likes [the rugby kick] as a mixer. Great opportunity to keep people on their toes. Give them one more thing to practice." - Andersen
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz on the publicity Melvin Gordon's decommit from Iowa has received over the past week.
It's just the way recruiting is. I don't think it's ever a surprise when a good home‑state player stays in his home state when they have a great program. I think that's exactly what happened. He was a guy we liked an awful lot in the recruiting process.
This season, Iowa has been able to hang with every team it's played, just like the Badgers. Both teams have five wins on the season, gave Ohio State a fight at The Horseshoe and knocked off Northwestern at home.
And yet, the Hawkeyes are nearly double-digit underdogs despite hosting Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium. That's a sign of respect for a Badgers team that hasn't gotten much respect this season, but it could also be a source of motivation for an Iowa team with a stingy defense and electric return man.
The issue here is that the Hawkeyes offense struggles to put points on the board, and Wisconsin—well—it doesn't. The Badgers lit up Illinois for 56, scores nearly 40 points per game and had an extra week of preparation heading into Saturday's clash with Iowa.
The special teams battle? There would be little resistance to the notion that Iowa wins that battle, and close games can often come down to the special teams unit. But beyond that, the Badgers are superior on offense and defense, and their season is heading in a much more positive direction than that of the Hawkeyes.
Northwestern is no Wisconsin, and Iowa was pushed to overtime to dispatch the Wildcats. Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon will have another stellar day, and the Badgers should be able to grow enough of a lead early to hold on late.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 13