Iowa defensive tackle Sam Brincks says Hawkeye line faces big challenge in Wisconsin, and that's just the way they want it Mark Emmert, email@example.com
IOWA CITY, Ia. — They have the muscle and the memory.
The average size of Wisconsin’s starting offensive linemen is 6-foot-6, 316 pounds. They have 146 college starts among them. Ten months ago, they sandblasted the Iowa defense to the tune of 249 rushing yards in a 38-14 victory.
This is the quintet Iowa’s defensive front must navigate at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium (Fox-TV). Stand up to the expert blockers for No. 16 Wisconsin (2-1) and the Hawkeyes (3-0) have a great chance to take early control of the Big Ten West race. Sit back and watch them operate and Iowa risks a repeat of the 38-14 shellacking from last November.
Bear down or wear down.
“They’re a model offensive line,” Big Ten Network analyst and former LSU coach Gerry DiNardo said of the Badgers’ premier position group. “They’re big. They’re strong. They’re flexible. You want talent, skill and being well-coached. That’s what they have.”
The Hawkeyes counter with a deep and explosive defensive line that has produced 10 sacks through three games while allowing 1.5 yards per rush attempt.
The Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry is typically as basic as football gets. Saturday’s version figures to be no different. In a game in which it’s often a fine line between winning and losing, the team with the finer line will likely prevail.
“I think winning the one-on-ones are going to be critical. The games within the game are going to be really important, the individual battles,” said Sam Brincks, a senior who figures to make his fourth career start at defensive tackle Saturday.
“As a defensive line, we want the pressure on us and we want to be able to hold it down for the team.”
BYU may have provided the Iowa defense a blueprint for handling the Wisconsin offense last week. The Cougars pulled off a 24-21 upset in Madison by doing these three things:
Circumvent Badgers' strength up front
It’s difficult to put pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook by rushing four players straight at him. So BYU, which sacked him twice and forced one interception, got creative.
“BYU had some success against them moving, slanting and not just sitting there,” DiNardo said. “If you’re game-planning against Wisconsin, you might not want to go through the five guys. You might want to occupy the five guys and take another edge rusher and put the pressure on a running back protecting.”
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker is not known for dialing up a lot of exotic blitzes. Perhaps Saturday will be an exception.
“I’m guessing Phil will start conservative. If he can (pressure Hornibrook) that way, he’ll do it. If not, he’ll start adding movement,” DiNardo said.
“If BYU can have success against Wisconsin, it’s fair to say that there’s enough matchups when Iowa plays them at night in Kinnick that Phil Parker will find something to his advantage.”
Sell out to stop Jonathan Taylor
Badgers sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor is second in the nation, averaging 172 rushing yards per game. He had 157 against Iowa last season. So it’s odd to say that BYU had success against him by “holding” him to 117 yards last week. But the Cougars did.
And they did it by gambling at the line of scrimmage, stacking an extra defender there to keep Taylor in check. He was the one player that BYU didn’t want to let loose.
For Iowa, that could mean a big role for hard-hitting strong safety Amani Hooker. The junior missed last season’s matchup against the Badgers with an injury.
It also means its relatively untested trio of starting linebackers — Jack Hockaday, Nick Niemann and Kristian Welch — must be in the correct gaps at all times. If the defensive line can keep Wisconsin’s offensive line from getting off the ball and into the second level of Iowa’s defense, that would be a significant victory as well.
Iowa did a terrific job defending Iowa State star running back David Montgomery two weeks ago (17 carries, 44 yards). That’s the model the Hawkeyes are looking for again.
Dare Alex Hornibrook to go deep
Hornibrook is a senior with a 16-2 record as a starter against Big Ten competition. The 6-foot-4 left-hander has certainly had his moments.
But what he hasn’t shown is the ability to consistently connect with receivers more than 10 yards downfield. DiNardo reviewed film of last Saturday’s game and determined that no Hornibrook pass attempt hit the hands of a receiver farther than 12 yards from scrimmage. And this was despite the fact that BYU was daring him to try.
The Cougars kept one safety deep and let their cornerbacks play man coverage on the edges. Hornibrook completed 18 passes for 190 yards.
“They just said, ‘Throw it deep over our heads’ and Wisconsin couldn’t do it. At the beginning of the year, I thought Wisconsin was one of the teams that didn’t have to evolve. That they could win from the ‘I’ formation,” DiNardo said.
“The advantage in the pro formation is putting the ball in Taylor’s stomach and throwing it over a cornerback’s head. But you need a receiver that can run. We don’t know if they do yet. But how can we know it if they don’t try it?”
Iowa’s cornerbacks — Matt Hankins and Michael Ojemudia — have held up well this season. Wisconsin’s best wide receiver, Quintez Cephus, is suspended while dealing with accusations of sexual assault.
This seems like a winning matchup for the Hawkeyes, a way to devote an extra defender to Taylor. But Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and his staff have certainly reviewed the same film DiNardo did. Expect them to at least try to take a couple of deep shots. If they succeed, it could alter the game dramatically. If not, Taylor will be a marked man.
Wisconsin’s offensive line will play an outsized role in all of this, either buying time for Hornibrook or opening running lanes for Taylor. We should probably mention their names — Jon Dietzen (from left), Michael Deiter, Tyler Biadasz, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards. You’ll likely be seeing them in the NFL someday.
On Saturday, Brincks and his defensive linemates will get a much more intimate view. The Hawkeye linemen are well-rested after a 38-14 win over Northern Iowa that saw eight players get extended snaps.
“We like to think we can make a big impact on the game and this week is no different,” Brincks said.
“Hopefully, it comes down to a fourth-quarter game, and that’s when we want to be at our best. And that rotation is certainly going to help with that.”
More on the game
No. 16 Wisconsin (2-1) at Iowa (3-0)
When: 7:35 p.m. Saturday
Where: Kinnick Stadium
TV: Fox (Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt, Jenny Taft)
Line: Badgers by 3
Weather: Sunny and 64 degrees; wind from the southeast at 4 mph