The Iowa coach outlines Saturday's challenge.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — By 11:45 a.m. Saturday, we’ll have a good indicator of whether Iowa is on track to upsetting 10th-ranked Wisconsin.
The visiting Badgers are determined to dominate the first quarter every Saturday. And they do it every time.
“As a defense, we have a mentality of winning first down,” Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy said. “Kind of dictating the terms.”
In the opening 15 minutes this fall, six Badger opponents — including LSU, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State — have mustered a mere six points (two field goals) and possessed the football less than one-third of the time (4:55 average).
A sleepy start in the Hawkeyes' sixth consecutive 11 a.m. kickoff could bring a quick, deflating end to their Big Ten West Division title hopes.
Iowa's all-America cornerback is aware his team needs to counter the Badgers' fast-starting ways.
“Our first half has got to be our greatest half,” Desmond King said. “Second half, we’ve got to match the intensity and get better.”
Iowa (5-2, 3-1) is 5-0 when it scores first this season; 0-2 when it doesn’t. It's a successful formula. Whichever team gets ahead early Saturday will dictate the tempo and, as Cichy put it, terms of the second through fourth quarters.
Mitch King (no relation) is Iowa's honorary captain this week. A fitting choice. The guys wearing black and gold need to match the unbridled intensity and grit that King embodied on Iowa's defensive line from 2005 to 2008.
Anything less would be a puzzling disappointment with so much on the line. The winner of this matchup has won the past two Big Ten West titles.
The Hawkeyes should have this down by now, after falling behind 7-0 in the first quarters of their last two home games — losses against North Dakota State and Northwestern.
Running back Akrum Wadley, who admitted the team came out flat in those games and during a far-too-tense 14-7 win at Rutgers, saw early-fire progress in back-to-back road wins at Minnesota and Purdue.
“Sense of urgency has changed, definitely increased,” Wadley said. “What we talk about is starting early, starting fast, attacking them first. Just playing with a sense of urgency. Don’t get too lazy. No plays off.”
Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and beat reporter Chris Cuellar look at Iowa's matchup with #10 Wisconsin in Iowa City.
On top of playing with emotion, defeating Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) requires extreme focus.
Wisconsin likes to confuse opponents on both sides of the ball.
Limiting the Badgers’ gaudy possession-time numbers (33:58 per game, No. 15 nationally, including 10:05 in the first quarter) begins with stuffing the run. Namely Corey Clement, who rushed for 164 yards in last week’s home overtime loss to Ohio State.
Hawkeye fans would like to forget the last time a star Badger running back came into Kinnick Stadium — 200 yards rushing and 64 receiving from Melvin Gordon in 2014, a 26-24 Badger win.
“They do a lot of stuff (to) try to get you out of position. Get your eyes wrong, get your keys wrong,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “It’s going to be a challenge defensively to be communicating and be on the same page.”
On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin brings such an oppressive, attacking defense that ceding turnovers or first-quarter momentum would be difficult to overcome.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard needs to make positive things happen while also realizing that, sometimes, it’s OK to let Ron Coluzzi punt.
The Heartland Trophy currently belongs to Iowa, which has won six straight trophy games. And a victory against Wisconsin moves Iowa back into contender status in the B10 West.
“We know we’re not going to break long runs on every single play,” Beathard said, a few days after Iowa unleashed rushes of 45, 67 and 75 yards in a 49-35 win at Purdue. “There are going to be some three-and-outs; there are going to be some good drives. No matter what happens in the game, you’ve just got to stay focused and keep pushing.”
Start fast, finish strong.
That goes for the Kinnick Stadium crowd, too.
Arrive early, get loud, disrupt the Badgers and their freshman quarterback.
If everyone does their part, by about 2:30 p.m., everyone can finally exhale — and maybe realize Iowa has a legit shot in this Big Ten West race.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.