Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann sizes up this week’s challenge. Chad Leistikow/The Register
MADISON, Wisc. — Iowa and Wisconsin combined to score 100 points last week.
But utterly meaningless when the teams meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, with ABC televising another bruise-filled battle to the nation.
The question is, as it always is when the Hawkeyes and Badgers get together, where will the points come from?
The No. 3 Badgers (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten Conference) are surrendering 13.3 points per game, tied for fourth-best in the nation. The Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3) are giving up 18.1 points to rank 16th.
The visiting team has won the past six games in the battle for the Heartland Trophy, with an average margin of victory of 7.3 points.
No one on either side is expecting much separation Saturday.
“I would say that they’re basically our twin,” Iowa senior fullback Drake Kulick said.
“We’re going to go in there hungry. They have our trophy and we don’t plan on leaving there without it.”
Wisconsin won 17-9 in Iowa City last year. The Hawkeyes prevailed 10-6 two years ago at Camp Randall.
The weather promises to be cold with a possibility of freezing drizzle.
Welcome to November football. Keep your eyes on the line of scrimmage, not the scoreboard. That’s where the action figures to be.
“If they’re having a day, then the whole team gets to have a day,” Iowa running back Akrum Wadley said, speaking of his offensive line.
They all had a day last Saturday in a 55-24 romp past then-No. 3 Ohio State. Wadley rushed for 118 yards in that one.
The Badgers won’t be impressed. They have allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season — Nebraska’s Devine Ozigbo. It’s the fourth-best run defense in the nation at 87.8 yards per game.
And if you think softening up Wisconsin with the pass is the answer, consider that the Badgers are also fifth in the nation in pass defense efficiency. They have 14 interceptions. Iowa has 13. Those are the top two marks in the Big Ten.
Again, no separation.
Tight ends could be a huge factor in this game. The Hawkeyes are coming off a game in which Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson scored two touchdowns apiece. The 6-foot-5 bookends have combined for 42 catches and are looking to find mismatches against linebackers in Wisconsin’s 3-4 scheme.
But first Wadley will have to create some running room. Iowa’s pass game functions much better off of play-action, and the Badgers need to have reason to buy that threat.
“Being able to get yards in the run game, staying ahead of the chains, opens it up for us,” Fant said. “Having those linebackers thinking run-first is going to put them at a disadvantage in the pass.”
Hockenson scored one touchdown last week when a Buckeye defensive end was trying to cover him. He won’t face that Saturday. He’ll have to try to beat a standup linebacker who may have the speed of a safety. He’s eager for the test.
“(Quarterback Nate) Stanley, he sees it at the line, sees where the mismatch is and gives you a chance to go to the ball. I like to think I have a mismatch every play, but that’s not true at all,” Hockenson said.
Wisconsin counters with a tight end trio of Troy Fumagilli, Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston, also owners of 42 receptions and five touchdowns. Their role figures to expand further now that leading wide receiver Quintez Cephus is out with an injury.
The Badgers will try to loosen up Iowa’s defense with freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who is averaging 152 rushing yards per game and leads the Big 10 with 12 touchdowns on the ground.
He runs behind an offensive line that is a perennial Badgers strength and made the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award, a massive trophy that Iowa’s line won a year ago.
“They know what they do, they know what they are, and they do it very, very well,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Wisconsin line.
“They play with an attitude on top of it. They're an aggressive group. They're very physical. As big as they are, they move really well.”
It’s a challenge Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell is relishing. There’s no deception, only power against power.
“There’s a lot of downhill stuff, power stuff, pulling guards, dividing tight ends,” said Jewell, who leads the Big Ten with 92 tackles despite missing one game with a shoulder injury. “Just being able to come downhill is going to be big, especially for us linebackers.”
This game is about the linemen, the tight ends and linebackers, and whichever team can create room to roam for a talented runner.
For Iowa, it’s also a chance to follow up one major upset with another — to derail a second Big Ten team’s hopes for a national title.
“We don’t want to be the team that get a big win like that and then falls to another big program,” Fant said. “That would show some inconsistency on our part.”
Iowa-Wisconsin has been the most consistent rivalry in the Big Ten. The steadiest team will win.
Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) at No. 3 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0)
WHERE: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
TIME/TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC (announcers: Joe Tessitore, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe)
LINE: Badgers by 12
WEATHER: 38 degrees with 20 percent chance of freezing drizzle; winds from south at 10-15 mph