Can Iowa beat Wisconsin in the trenches? That likely determines winner of Big Ten clash
MADISON, Wis. — Halloween weekend is near but Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz isn't concerning himself with thoughts of costumes, pumpkin patches or seasonal candy. His focus is on something far less sweet: a road trip to Madison to face rival Wisconsin, which is on a three-game winning streak.
"I'm thinking about Wisconsin's line right now," Ferentz said. "That ain't candy corn, I know that. We'll see what we can do."
Wisconsin defeated Purdue, 30-13, last Saturday to even its conference record to 2-2. Iowa is 3-1 in Big Ten play and holds a share of first place in the West Division (with Minnesota), but a Wisconsin win on Saturday would give them an inside track to the Big Ten Championship Game with head-to-head tiebreakers over Iowa and Purdue.
Offensively, Wisconsin underwent a drastic shift in strategy to a heavy dose of the run game. Over the last three weeks, the Badgers have averaged nearly 52 rush attempts per game.
The result: 5.5 yards per carry and 293 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns per game. Including last Saturday's effort against Purdue, the Badgers have outrushed opposing teams by more than 300 yards three times this season.
"Each and every year, they try to run the ball down your throat," safety Kaevon Merriweather said.
Iowa's last trip to Wisconsin isn't a fond memory for the defense. Wisconsin rushed for 300 yards on 6.4 yards per carry on the way to a 24-22 win. There's no Jonathan Taylor this year for Wisconsin, but two running backs with different styles have emerged in recent weeks as viable weapons: Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi (5-foot-11, 204 pounds) and powerful freshman Braelon Allen (6-2, 238).
But everything starts up front with the battle between Wisconsin's offensive line against Iowa's defensive front. Figuratively and literally, this is their biggest challenge to date.
"I can't imagine there's anybody bigger in the country, man for man, than their offensive line," Ferentz said. "Their guys are big, strong, and physical. They really try to block you. It's been that way. This will be the 23rd year I've got to witness that firsthand. You know going into it what it is."
Iowa's defensive front has experienced ebbs and flows this season. Early on, they were dominant, but in recent weeks haven't been as disruptive. Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell sees this matchup as a culmination of everything the coaches have taught throughout the year.
"It's like a final (exam) almost," Bell said. "Fundamental football is what's going to get this done. The team with the best pad level, knocks back the line of scrimmage and is able to separate is the team that's going to be successful. You work on it day in and day out, week in and week out and it's got to show up for us on Saturday."
Comparatively, Iowa's defensive line is much smaller that Wisconsin's front five. The Hawkeyes' ability or inability to get "their hat under Wisconsin's hat" (as Bell described it) and keeping good hand placement will be critical.
Wisconsin's use of tight ends and fullbacks creates an additional challenge for Iowa's front seven. Gap responsibility is another critical area of success for Iowa in this game. A normal offensive look with six possible gaps to fill can become eight with Wisconsin. On top of getting player with good leverage in every gap, Iowa's defenders must keep good eye discipline to ensure that they're in the proper gap.
The Badgers' last performance against Purdue shows what can happen when gaps aren't filled even for one play. In the second quarter, Wisconsin's offense spanned 94 yards in three plays (all runs) because Purdue did a poor job on gap assignments and tackling.
"They run it for two, run it for three, then all of a sudden there goes that one," Ferentz said. "Somebody doesn't fit where they're supposed to fit, these backs both find it really well. You got to tackle them, too. The next play, when they scored the touchdown, Purdue had it defended, they couldn't tackle the back, the guy is in the end zone."
The Hawkeye secondary will be counted on just as much as the front seven to helping stuff the run. Like the defenders in front of them, they will need to know which gaps to fill to make tackles or prevent big plays if Wisconsin's backs break through. An area of emphasis this week was taking proper angles to avoid blocks from pulling offensive linemen.
"Just seeing where your gap will end up being at and where you can fill," Merriweather said. "A lot of that comes from film work and just reading everything correctly."
Merriweather also highlighted that Iowa can't "fall asleep" against Wisconsin's offense as they move ahead for a few yards at a time.
In a contest with major conference (and, for Iowa, national) implications, the Hawkeye defense will have to do what Wisconsin's previous three opponents haven't.
"They're just coming at you, they come at you, come at you … " Ferentz said. "They love that game. They just love to make you feel that pressure. They're going to mix some pass in with it, too. You can't just sell out totally.
"It's a different kind of pressure than like throwing the ball every 23 seconds, one of those deals. That's hard, too. It's just a different way of trying to torture you."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.