When Iowa battles Wisconsin on Saturday for the Heartland Trophy, fans will witness two highly skilled Big Ten teams with almost identical mindsets, the same coaching philosophy and similar styles of play.
The two teams meet on the playing field in Iowa City at a crucial juncture in the season. The outcome of this game will shape their football fortunes for 2010...in the Big Ten and, perhaps, upon the more prominent BCS national stage.
This year, both teams remain in contention for the Big Ten title, each with one loss, although Iowa has not lost to a Big Ten opponent. In Week 5, the Badgers fell to Michigan State in East Lansing.
This is a must-win game for both teams heading into the heart of the Big Ten season.
Although Iowa and Wisconsin are very similar, their differences will be revealed on Saturday as Iowa tries to capitalize on the advantages the Hawkeyes hold over their worthy rivals.
Iowa’s success will materialize from the following if:
Key 1: Iowa’s Defensive Line Rules Wisconsin’s Offensive Line.
For the Badgers to win against Iowa, Wisconsin must flatten Iowa’s front four on defense.
That means overpowering DE Adrian Clayborn, DE Broderick Binns, DT Christian Ballard and DT Karl Klug.
Keeping Iowa’s awesome foursome down long enough so that Wisconsin’s power running backs John Clay and James White can work their magic on the scoreboard will fall squarely on the shoulders of the Badger offensive line.
Wisconsin must establish the running game to have any hope of winning on the road in Iowa City.
But Iowa ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing defense. They may, in fact, have the top overall defense in the country.
This will prove to be the ultimate test for the Badger’s big boys up front on the offensive line: senior left guard John Moffitt, senior left tackle Gabe Carimi, sophomore center Peter Konz, junior right guard Kevin Zeitler and sophomore right tackle Ricky Wagner as they try to blaze a path for their vaunted running backs.
Against the Ohio State Buckeyes, challenged by their head coach Bret Bielema, the offensive line battered their way through a rugged set of Buckeye defenders, protecting their quarterback Scott Tolzien while keeping the Badger running drive alive...in fact, thriving.
No doubt that the Badgers will be up to the task of meeting Iowa’s defense head to head. But in the end, Iowa on defense should be able to wear down the offensive line and contain the Wisconsin running game while also picking apart their aerial attack.
Nationally, Iowa ranks sixth in scoring defense and seventh in rushing defense and 13th in total defense. Wisconsin ranks 12th in rushing offense.
Against Michigan, Iowa finally surrendered a rushing touchdown this season...in fact, two in that contest.
But Wisconsin does not operate out of a spread offense. They line up and run in a pro set, just as Iowa does. Iowa will be prepared to meet their running backs and stop them in their tracks on Saturday.
Key 2: Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi's Offense Outplays Wisconsin On Offense
Nobody seems to give much credit to Badger QB Scott Tolzien, but he has passed for 1,353 yards, garnering seven touchdowns with three interceptions.
Completing 70 percent of his passes, Tolzien hangs onto the ball and engineers the offense efficiently.
Ricky Stanzi, too, has provided outstanding leadership during his senior season, throwing for 1,474 yards, including 13 touchdowns while giving up only two interceptions.
Stanzi, moreover, is the highest-rated quarterback in the Big Ten to date while ranking third nationally in pass efficiency. Tolzien, on the other hand, ranks 15th nationally.
With Stanzi in the pocket, Iowa is 23-5 in Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. During the last two seasons with Stanzi under center, Iowa is 16-3.
The Iowa QB has the luxury this season of throwing to Derrell-Johnson Koulianos who has surged into first place in Iowa receiving yards at 2,275.
Against Michigan, Koulianos hauled in three catches for touchdowns, marking a personal best-ever performance for the senior receiver.
But Stanzi has other reliable receivers in Marvin McNutt (who can ever forget his game-winning catch against Michigan State in 2009) and big tight end Allen Reisner, who has 19 receptions for 229 yards and one touchdown.
Tolzien passes the football to two very competent receivers in Lance Kendricks and Nick Toon.
Iowa, however, has the better receiving corps with Koulianos, McNutt and Reisner, who have snagged 63 catches and scored 10 touchdowns with a better passer tossing them the ball.
Key 3: Iowa's RB Adam Robinson Keeps Pace with John Clay & Co.
While Adam Robinson cannot expect to out-gain Badger running backs John Clay and James White on the afternoon, Iowa must establish the threat of a running game to keep the Wisconsin defense fully engaged.
Clay is second in the Big Ten in rushing yards with 796 yards on 136 carries and 11 touchdowns.
Robinson follows at fourth with 623 yards on 129 carries, scoring eight touchdowns so far on the season. White at No. 7 has 560 yards on 80 carries, scoring 9 touchdowns.
Robinson as Iowa’s sole starting running back carries almost 30 times a game.
He runs with deceptive quickness, low to the ground, finding holes, instantly sizing up the defense and moving the ball up field without hesitation.
Wisconsin will be keying on Robinson to contain the run.
This is where Stanzi’s effective use of Robinson in the play-action pass comes into focus as a key for the running game. Iowa on offense must keep Wisconsin’s defense guessing about the run. This will aid Stanzi in opening up the passing lanes.
Key 4: Other Intangibles Favors Iowa: Home Field Advantage.
The other factor in favor of Iowa is home-field advantage.
Iowa has in recent years matched up well against the Badgers, holding a slight advantage in their series 42-41-2 as the Badgers and the Hawkeyes meet for the 86th time; the first contest took place in 1894.
This rivalry’s roots are deep, as is true for most teams in the Big Ten.
Against the Badgers, Iowa won their last two games...six of their last eight contests.
Iowa, of course, defeated the Badgers last year at Camp Randall 20-10, at that point to keep the Hawkeyes undefeated season alive.
Iowa has lost just nine games at home since 2002. Since the start of the 2008 season, Iowa has a home record of 16-2.
Iowa does not lose often at home, which is also true for the Badgers inside Camp Randall.
But on Saturday, these two teams will face other inside Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City and that is a huge advantage for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Home-field advantage becomes one of the primary reasons the Hawkeyes will win, tipping the outcome in the Hawkeyes' favor.