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.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The numbers seem stacked against Iowa’s chances to emerge as a victor Saturday against 10th-ranked Wisconsin.
Despite playing a far tougher schedule, the Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) are ranked ahead of Iowa (5-2, 3-1) in total offense and total defense.
History is stacked against Iowa, too.
Not only has the road team won five straight in this series, the Hawkeyes have a two-game home losing streak. They haven’t defeated a ranked opponent in Kinnick Stadium since No. 13 Michigan on Nov. 5, 2011.
It’s no wonder the sharp guys in Las Vegas peg Iowa as a 4-point underdog.
Yet despite all of that … Advantage Iowa?
The Hawkeyes come into this 11 a.m., ESPN-televised clash with one distinct, significant edge: Quarterback.
Fifth-year senior C.J. Beathard isn’t putting up big passing numbers this year (1,227 yards, 11 touchdowns, four interceptions), but Iowa can lean on his veteran, ball-protecting presence.
Beathard finds ways to win. He carries an 18-4 record into his 23rd career start. That mark includes an 8-3 record in games decided by single digits, one of those last year at Camp Randall Stadium.
On the opposite sideline, Wisconsin hopes redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook is a good one someday. Iowa hopes someday isn’t Saturday.
The left-handed Hornibrook (680 yards, five TDs, six INTs) is making his fourth career start and is 0-2 in single-digit outcomes. His being outplayed by counterpart J.T. Barrett was the key factor in last week’s 30-23 overtime loss to No. 2 Ohio State.
“He’s a play-making quarterback,” Iowa cornerback Desmond King said. “He’s not that mobile in the open field. More of a pocket passer.”
Safe to say, the Hawkeyes need Beathard to be excellent — like Barrett was — to beat Bucky.
“He's got to be sharp every game, every play,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That doesn't change.”
Beathard’s football acumen starts at the line of scrimmage, where he’ll see a Wisconsin 3-4 defense that necessitated extra hours of film study this week.
Most defenses Beathard has faced — including his own, during practice — plays with four down linemen and three linebackers.
Iowa's starting quarterback talks about how he plans to approach the Badgers' aggressiveness in Saturday's matchup.
The Badgers try to use attacking outside linebackers (Vince Biegel, if healthy, and T.J. Watt) to disrupt opposing quarterbacks and run games. Beathard was held to 9-for-21 passing for 77 yards (his career low as a starter) in Iowa's 10-6 win at Wisconsin in 2015.
“They can bring any of the four ‘backers to add on to the blitz,” Beathard said. “We’ve been working all week in practice at different looks. We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, but we’ve seen a lot of them on tape.”
When Beathard gets to the line of scrimmage, he has a lot to figure out.
Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and beat reporter Chris Cuellar look at Iowa's matchup with #10 Wisconsin in Iowa City.
But he also can’t overthink it, knowing that Wisconsin is crafty in disguising defensive looks.
“Coach (Greg) Davis always says, don’t split brain cells up there. Just get into a check that you think the best play is,” Beathard said. “If it turns out that something happens that you weren’t expecting, you’ll live with it. You’re never wrong handing the ball off, he always says.”
Maturity and intelligence are areas of Beathard’s game that have grown a lot since his first Big Ten action as a freshman — in 2013 against Wisconsin when he came on in relief of Jake Rudock, but was stifled for 4-of-15 passing for 70 yards in a 28-9 loss.
Maybe that’s the way Iowa’s defense can make Hornibrook feel in his first trip to Kinnick Stadium.
“I’ve heard that it’s a great atmosphere,” the 6-foot-4, 219-pound native of Malvern, Pa., said. “The fans are really into it, really close to you on the field.”
Patience and play-making when it counts might decide Saturday’s game.
Iowa needs Beathard to display both. If he does, the Heartland Trophy — and perhaps the road to a Big Ten West title — will stay in Iowa City.
WISCONSIN (4-2, 1-2 BIG TEN) AT IOWA (5-2, 3-1)
Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
Time, TV: 11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN (Announcers: Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Todd McShay)
The line: Wisconsin is favored by 4
Weather: Sunny, with temperatures in the mid-60s. No chance of rain.
At the stadium: Iowa Farm Bureau’s ANF Legends Tent will be open from 8 to 10:30 a.m. in the Krause Family Plaza and feature ANF Wall of Honor inductee Dallas Clark and former Hawkeye stars Chuck Long and Pat Angerer. Also, the Big Ten Network's "BTN Tailgate" show will air from 9:30 to 11 in the plaza.