Brown: Hawkeye fans, be scared of Badgers' defense, too

Rick Brown

IOWA CITY, Ia. The Kinnick Stadium record for rushing yards in a game is 314, set by Tavian Banks against Tulsa in 1997. The most rushing yards ever by a Hawkeye opponent was 306 by LeShon Johnson of Northern Illinois in 1993.

Now that we've got that out of the way in anticipation of Melvin Gordon's arrival Saturday, let me tell you what the most impressive thing is about this Wisconsin football team.

It's the defense.

Yes, Gordon leads the nation in rushing and is a top-tier Heisman Trophy candidate. The No. 1 candidate, in my book.

"I'm not sure I've ever seen a better one than we're going to see this Saturday," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who has never majored in hyperbole.

Gordon piles up yards in video-game fashion. He turned Nebraska's Blackshirts inside-out last week to the tune of an FBS-record 408 yards. In 25 carries. And three quarters.

How do you stop a running assault like that? Give the visitor's locker room an extra coat of pink paint?

"You just about have to play perfect football," Ferentz said.

But you know who else leads the nation? Wisconsin's defense. A defense that doesn't have anyone with star power — a J.J. Watt, for example. A defense that lost its entire front seven from last season. And yet the Badgers lead the nation in total defense (244 yards a game), scoring defense (15.3), rushing defense (96.7) and pass defense (147.3).

"All things being said, they're playing at a higher rate (than last year)," Ferentz said. "It's really impressive."

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, in his second season, brought a 3-4 defense (three down linemen, four linebackers) with him from Utah State when Barry Alvarez hired him to replace Bret Bielema.

Over the past two seasons, only Alabama and Louisville have allowed fewer points than Wisconsin's 15.9 average. Iowa managed just three field goals in last season's 28-9 loss at Kinnick. And the Badgers' defensive star, Chris Borland, was injured and didn't play.

When Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock watches film of the Badgers, he describes what he sees in two words: Fundamentally sound.

"That's the first thing," Rudock said. "They're at the places they need to be. They make tackles. They hustle to the ball. And they play really hard."

Wisconsin's defenses comes with no bells and whistles, Ferentz said. Until third down.

"Who knows what you're going to get there," Ferentz said.

Badger opponents have just a 27 percent conversion rate on third down. Iowa is converting 46 percent of the time on third down. Wisconsin has piled up 32 sacks. Linebackers Vince Biegel and Derek Landisch have combined for 13.5 of those.

"There are no real weaknesses on that defense," Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. "They tackle real well. They don't like giving up the big play. You have to take advantage of an opportunity if they give it to you. You better, because it's not going to come very often."

A repeat of last season would be fatal. Iowa's first possession of the game started at the Wisconsin 49, after a Tanner Miller interception. Three-and-out. A 23-yard Badger punt gave Iowa the ball for its second possession at the Wisconsin 39. The Hawkeyes settled for a field goal.

Iowa's third possession started at its own 44. Three-and-out. A 19-yard punt let the Hawkeyes start their fourth possession at the Badger 41. Three-and-out.

Four golden opportunities, three points.

"Hard to win games when you don't take advantage of those opportunities," Weisman said.

Especially when the defense you're about to face plays in the shadows of a Heisman Trophy candidate. And is ranked No. 1 in the country.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.