For Iowa's defense Saturday, all eyes will be on Wisconsin star Jonathan Taylor
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Michael Ojemudia laid out Iowa’s defensive gameplan as clearly as it can be stated.
“We’re going to try to heat it up this week and make it blurry for him,” Iowa’s senior cornerback said Tuesday, referring to Wisconsin junior quarterback Jack Coan, a first-year starter. “Because we think he’s a good quarterback, but we don’t think he’s exceptional. So if we force him to pass and heat it up for him, I think he’s prone to make mistakes.”
The biggest game to date in this year's Big Ten West race arrives at 3 p.m. Saturday in Madison. No. 18 Iowa and No. 16 Wisconsin sport identical 6-2 records. Each is 3-2 in league play. Each has a date remaining against 8-0 Minnesota. The winner stays alive; the loser is probably buried for this season.
So it’s no wonder that every Hawkeye defensive player interviewed Tuesday had Badger star running back Jonathan Taylor on their mind. The junior has 5,180 rushing yards in his career, 1,009 this season and 270 in a pair of victories over Iowa.
The Hawkeyes will be devoting an extra defender or two to slow Taylor. The thinking is that Coan, who is completing 75.4 percent of his passes while being shielded in a conservative attack, will not make them pay.
Everyone knows this is easier said than done.
“You're on-edge the entire game as long as he's out there,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, paying Taylor the ultimate compliment. “You have to respect his ability to finish plays, and it's really a significant factor.”
Still, the Badgers have lost their past two games against defenses who have taken this exact approach. Illinois made Wisconsin hand the football to Taylor a season-high 28 times in order to gain 132 yards Oct. 19 and found a way to pull out a 24-23 upset. Ohio State bottled up Taylor for a season-low 52 yards a week later and won 38-7.
Wisconsin has had a bye week to figure things out. So has Iowa.
“The focus this year is putting more guys on him, so we’ve been really hemming it up during practice just to contain him, not giving him any gaps to seep through,” said Ojemudia, who knows he’ll be needed more in run support from his position on the edge of Iowa’s defense, from where he has made 28 tackles this season.
Iowa will likely be without starting middle linebacker Kristian Welch for a third consecutive game because of a “stinger” injury, Ferentz said. Welch remains the Hawkeyes’ leading tackler with 47 despite the missed time. That is a concern.
It will be up to players like Jack Koerner (43 tackles) and Djimon Colbert (40) to help overcome the loss.
Koerner, a sophomore safety, expects to spend much of Saturday afternoon creeping closer to the line of scrimmage in run support.
“Just walking down and being in the box is something I feel comfortable doing, just being able to read my keys from closer,” he said.
“When they come in and get in those tight, bunched formations, we want to be able to get down and stop the run and force them into longer down and distances.”
Koerner said Iowa has been experimenting with using extra defensive linemen this week in practices, after the Badgers occasionally threw as many as seven offensive linemen on the field at times in last year’s 28-17 win at Kinnick Stadium.
It will be incumbent on the Hawkeye defensive front to absorb all of those blockers, to leave players like Koerner and sophomore linebacker Colbert freed up to roam to Taylor and bring him down for short gains. It’s something Colbert felt he did not do well as a rookie.
“I can get to the blocker fine. But getting off of the block and making the tackle, that was something I struggled with last year,” he said.
“This is everything that we’ve been working for. We’ve got to come out and use all the weeks of tackle drills we do. All the weeks of pursuit drills. This is the game you want to come out and showcase that in. Our coaches have been emphasizing that, too.”
Iowa figures to scrap the 4-2-5 defense this week against a Wisconsin offense that averages 216 yards per game on the ground. The Badgers have 24 rushing touchdowns, and only 10 passing.
“That’s Big Ten football. You’ve got to realize that in recruiting,” Colbert said. “If you commit to a school like this, these are the type of games you’re going to be competing in.”
Koerner will be getting his first (and probably only) look at Taylor on Saturday. He expects to have plenty of help in wrangling Taylor, but also knows there will likely come a moment when it’s just the two of them in the open field: The best running back in college football against the Hawkeye walk-on.
“I’m not overwhelmed with his notoriety,” Koerner said of Taylor.
“He makes good first contact, and you’ve got to be able to take him down. Solo tackles are going to be tough on him this week, so we’ve got to make sure we’re running to the ball. If he’s going to be able to have one-on-one situations all day, it’s not exactly what we want.”
This is exactly why Taylor will be a marked man by the Iowa defense Saturday. He’s a supreme talent; it’s an extreme measure.
And the Big Ten West race will change based on how it turns out.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
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