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Leistikow: The key statistic Hawkeyes must win to turn Wisconsin tide

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When you look at a decade of football history between Iowa and Wisconsin, there really is no mystery to what it takes to win.

Since 2010, the Badgers have won seven of eight meetings against Iowa by a combined score of 198-135. (The teams didn’t play in 2011 or 2012, when they were separated in the Big Ten Conference’s short-lived Legends and Leaders divisions.)

In that time, the Badgers have 1,491 passing yards. Iowa has 1,483.

Iowa actually owns the edge in turnover margin, going plus-1 over 10 years.

But this is the stat that has separated the men from the boys: Wisconsin has doubled up Iowa in rushing yards over the last 10 years, 204.5 yards per game to 102.0.

The team that has more rushing yards has won the game, every time.

Iowa’s only win in the past decade (10-6 in 2015) came on a day when C.J. Beathard was 9-for-21 passing for 77 yards with two turnovers. But the defense held Wisconsin’s running game that day in Madison to 86 yards on 34 carries.

In the four years since? Wisconsin has amped up the run-game disparity. Its rushing totals in the four-game winning streak: 167, 247, 210 and 300. Iowa’s, by comparison, have been 83, 25, 148 and 87.

To win the rushing battle — and thus, the Heartland Trophy — requires success on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Tyler Goodson had just five carries against the Badgers last season; he'll no doubt need to be a focal point for the Hawkeyes this time around.

Let’s start with Iowa’s goal of stopping the Wisconsin run.

Two things should be working in Iowa’s favor.

No. 1: Jonathan Taylor now plays for the Indianapolis Colts. In three meetings against the Hawkeyes, the dynamic running back carried the football 85 times for 520 yards — a remarkable clip of 6.12 per carry. Wisconsin has had trouble finding a replacement, though tantalizing freshman Jalen Berger was elevated to No. 1 on the depth chart this week.

No. 2: Iowa's defense is allowing just 2.98 yards per rushing attempt. The strong play of interior defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon and Jack Heflin have helped free up linebackers and defensive ends to be more impactful against the run. Iowa has 46 tackles for loss totaling 211 yards through seven games. Nixon has 13, Zach VanValkenburg 8½ and Chauncey Golston 7½.

“We've got to be more physical up front,” Nixon said. “We’ve got to dominate the line of scrimmage, like we've been doing these past few games. Our focus is mainly to try to make sure we fit our run fits, get good knock-back pressure up the middle and set the edge on the end. If we do our job up front, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

Wisconsin has had trouble finding a run-game rhythm in back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Indiana. But much of the Hawkeyes’ run-stuffing success to date has come again quarterback-option attacks. They'll see a much different approach from Wisconsin — traditional handoffs behind an offensive line that averages 309 pounds a man and wants to maul.

"There's no one else we've played up to this point this year that’s come close to what they're going to do,” leading Iowa tackler Nick Niemann said. “They're big, physical (and) they want to play smash-mouth football.”

Maybe more importantly … can Iowa run the ball on the Badgers?

This is probably the key matchup to watch. The Hawkeyes’ five-game winning streak has largely been built on the ground-gaining success of Tyler Goodson, the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher, and Mekhi Sargent. Iowa has reached at least 175 rushing yards in four of its last five games.

The one exception? Nebraska, which — like Wisconsin — runs a 3-4 defense. And Wisconsin’s 3-4 is better. The Badgers under coordinator Jim Leonhard (and Dave Aranda before him) have historically blown up Iowa's run-game with attacking linebackers.

“Same scheme as the past four or five years I’ve been here,” said left tackle Alaric Jackson, set to make his fourth start against the Badgers and 42nd of his Hawkeye career. “Nothing crazy. They just play good team defense for the whole game. No missteps, really.”

Wisconsin’s 2-2 record shouldn’t overshadow its salty run defense, as usual. The Badgers have allowed just six running plays of 10-plus yards, the fewest in FBS among teams that have played at least four games. They want you to grind, not gouge.

The Hawkeyes, thus, are going to have to stay patient and persistent in the ground game. They’ve averaged only 26.8 rushing attempts per game during the four-game series losing streak, compared to the Badgers’ 46.8.

That dovetails into the Badgers’ other impressive defensive stat: Their opponents are averaging just 4.6 plays per possession; that’s the best rate in the FBS (Clemson is next, at 4.8). If Iowa can keep the Wisconsin defense on the field for longer stretches, the domino effect could be game-changing.

The Hawkeyes need to keep Nixon and Heflin, in particular, fresh on defense.

“We’re very eager to take that win and break that string of them … beating us,” Goodson said. “… We just have to go into the game having the mindset that we have to start fast and do well on first and second down.”

The Hawkeyes have come close to getting over the Wisconsin hump the last two years. They led until the final minute in 2018; a failed two-point conversion stopped them inches short in 2019.

Is it time for history to change?

Watch the rushing stats on Saturday, and you'll know the answer.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.