This week’s temperature dip corresponded perfectly with the football schedule, with Big Ten Conference play starting this weekend. Nothing quite says fall like a crisp afternoon watching a power-running offense smash into a run-stopping defense, and high temperatures certainly wouldn’t do the matchup between Wisconsin (3-1) and Iowa (4-0) Saturday justice.
For the Badgers, this matchup serves as their first real test since the season opener, and should provide an accurate measuring stick for the rest of the year. UW has trampled its last three opponents, but none of the teams it beat were on par with even a middling Big Ten team, like the Hawkeyes.
The Badger run game has been a question mark throughout the season, but last week seemed to be a step in the right direction, as the team ran for 326 yards. With the loss of junior Corey Clement, another running back needed to fill the void, and last week one finally stepped up, in the form of redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal. Deal ran for 147 yards as well as two scores. Clement may not be on the field, but he has imparted some of his experience on his partners in the backfield.
“He said it gets tougher, but at the end of the day... just stick to what you know, but expect better competition,” Deal said.
Iowa will be a great benchmark for the relatively inexperienced Badger backfield, due to its solid run-stopping ability. It ranks 12th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, just behind Wisconsin at 11th. If Iowa can limit the run game, UW can always go after the Hawkeyes’ secondary, which is less fearsome, as Iowa ranks 63rd in the nation in passing yards allowed per game.
Last week, the Badgers’ pass offense was reliant on receiver Alex Erickson, with the redshirt senior grabbing nine of redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave’s 14 completions. However, expect more people to be involved this coming Saturday, as putting all the weight on one receiver is an exception, and not the rule.
In two of Wisconsin’s other three games, there were more than one receiver with five or more receptions and eight different receivers catching at least one pass. Against Troy, Wisconsin relied less on the pass, but the spread to receivers stayed the same, with seven guys catching a pass and two different guys totaling three catches each.
Junior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright didn’t feel targeting Erickson was a negative for the group as a whole.
“We all have different things and different tools to get open, him and Joel were in sync, so I was just proud we were able to move the ball in the passing game,” Wheelwright said.
On the other side of the ball, the Badgers don’t have as much to worry about. They haven’t allowed a touchdown since Week 1, and have only allowed three points in the last three games. Iowa’s offense doesn’t stand out on the ground or in the air, ranking 49th in the nation in rushing yards per game, and 57th in passing yards per game. Nevertheless, Wisconsin expects a physical contest.
“This could very well be the most physical game that we play and our players know that,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “It’s not necessarily something harped on ... or anything like that, it’s really kind of understood.”
Both teams have similar offensive philosophies: crowd the line of scrimmage and run the ball. This causes opposing defenses to in turn load the box to stop the run, which leads to situations where “if a grenade went off, all 22 guys are going down,” according to Aranda. The explosive imagery illustrates what Big Ten fans and coaches know well; the team that runs the ball best generally wins.
Not lost on either side is the fact that this matchup is one of the Big Ten’s many trophy game rivalries, with the teams battling for the Heartland Trophy, a bronze bull atop a plaque with the previous game winners listed. UW has won the game the last three meetings, and the players are well aware of the trophy and all that it brings.
“When you look at [the trophy], you’re like ‘it’s probably not that heavy.’ You pick it up, you’re like ‘I need help,’” Wheelwright said.
Wisconsin and Iowa will face off for the Heartland Trophy at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday at 11 a.m.