IOWA CITY, Ia. — A bye week after a game against Wisconsin?
That’s some serendipitous scheduling for the Iowa football team, which will enter Kinnick Stadium on Saturday to the bellowing of “Back in Black” and leave to spend seven days dealing with “Back in Black and Blue.”
All the bruises will be worth it for the Hawkeyes if they can spend the three hours in between upsetting the 10th-ranked Badgers.
Iowa’s players were bracing themselves this week for the most punishing game of the season, as evidenced by the string of rugged metaphors uttered in Tuesday’s media sessions.
“It’s going to be a fistfight,” Hawkeye defensive tackle Nathan Bazata said.
“They like to run it down your throat,” middle linebacker Josey Jewell added.
Defensive end Parker Hesse, noting that the visiting team has won five straight in this rivalry, explained: “You kind of come in with a chip on your shoulder when you go on the road, like a dog that hasn’t been fed for a few weeks.”
The Hawkeyes are the underdogs at home in their biggest game to date this fall. Here’s what they need to do take momentum — and a chance to repeat as Big Ten West champions — into their hard-earned week off.
Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and beat reporter Chris Cuellar look at Iowa's matchup with #10 Wisconsin in Iowa City.
Time of possession may be the most boring statistic in sports. But they keep track of it because of games like this. Both teams are at their best when they can use a sturdy running game to wear down the opposing defense. Who does that better Saturday is likely to limp away with a win.
Wisconsin has held time in its hands all but once this season, and is third in the Big Ten Conference, with an average of 33:58 of possession.
The good news for Iowa is that it’s been gaining traction in ball-control football as well. The Hawkeyes held the ball for fewer than 24 minutes in two of their first three games, but followed that with steady progress. Time of possession has been 30:41, 31:39, 34:55 and 36:06 in the four weeks since.
That has kept a Hawkeye defense lacking depth fresher and able to make a bigger impact.
Iowa’s offense will be challenged, not just by the best opponent it’s faced this season, but by the possible absences of tight end George Kittle (the most dominant run-blocker at his position in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus) and linemen Cole Croston and Boone Myers.
If Croston and Myers can’t go, the Hawkeyes will shuffle their best blockers, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger, to the tackle positions. That would put the little-used Keegan Render and Levi Paulsen at guards.
The Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) play a 3-4 defense, meaning the best place to attack with the rush is up the middle. Can Render and Paulsen handle that responsibility if called upon? It will help that Wisconsin nose tackle Olive Segapolu also is out with an injury.
Regardless, senior LeShun Daniels Jr., the biggest Iowa tailback at 225 pounds, said he’s prepared for the grind.
“You’ve got to make sure that you’re mentally ready for the pounding that you’re going to get because there’s going to be plenty of plays that are going to be one-, two-yard gains,” said Daniels, who averages 5.4 yards per carry.
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.
If that sounds like Daniels is being a defeatist, it’s more that he’s being a realist. Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard also acknowledged this week that “there’s going to be some three-and-outs.”
This is an important attitude for the Hawkeyes to have. Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten in rush defense, at 106 yards per game. Iowa must maintain its patience.
In the Hawkeyes’ Week 5 loss to Northwestern and a Week 6 win at Minnesota, there were a combined 15 punts. Saturday’s game could easily eclipse that mark. Punting need not be seen as failure, even if the Hawkeyes find themselves repeatedly walking to the sideline while the sellout crowd murmurs impatiently.
“In games like this, typically little things are really going to matter, and they're good at little things,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of the Badgers. “So if we're going to want to be in this ballgame, we're going to have to do that a little bit better, too.”
Little things like hanging on to the football, something the Hawkeyes have excelled at (with just five turnovers so far this season). Little things like getting punter Ron Coluzzi back to his early-season form — the fifth-year senior is averaging 40.7 yards per punt, but is at just 37.9 in his past three games, a mini-slump from which he must emerge.
And little things like Beathard finding ways to extend plays with his feet again. That part of his game has been absent for much of the season, but it's something that a blitzing Wisconsin defense is afraid of.
“His run game is what presents a lot of threats to defenses. You try your best to contain him inside and then he’ll break a run here and there. And that’s what kind of opens up so much for the offense,” Wisconsin senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said this summer when asked about defending Beathard.
It doesn’t have to be a big gain or a touchdown, as Beathard did last week against Purdue on a rare 15-yard scamper. But if he can dart for a couple of first downs, extend a couple of drives to gain valuable possession time and field position, it would be a huge contribution in what figures to be a low-scoring game.
Take one quick break
Iowa (5-2, 3-1) has been winning games with long rushing touchdowns all season. Daniels scored from 43 yards out in Weeks 1 and 2. Wadley hit for the game-winner from 26 yards at Rutgers in Week 4, then did the same from 54 yards at Minnesota in Week 6. He added a 75-yarder last week at Purdue.
In the Hawkeyes’ losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern, those back-breaking runs were absent.
Wisconsin hasn’t allowed a run longer than 38 yards all season, and that was in a Week 2 blowout over Akron. Ohio State’s longest run last Saturday, in a 23-20 overtime win in Madison, was for just 22 yards.
The Hawkeyes must bide their time, play the long game, and hope they can hit that perfectly executed play just once while not allowing the Badgers to do so first.
In a game that shapes up to be a slugfest, one knockdown punch may be all that’s needed.
“You just never know what that play is going to be,” Ferentz said. “Outsiders might describe it as ugly football, but it's kind of like, the visual I've got right now is like the last couple years when Pittsburgh and Baltimore play; it's usually a pretty tough, physical game and comes down to a possession.
“And players need to understand that, and you just keep pushing, just keep banging away and see if something good will happen.”