The Wisconsin Badgers (5-4, 3-3) will hit the road for a matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-4, 3-3) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
In some ways, the two teams have had very similar 2022 seasons, winning two out of three to begin September before falling into midseason slumps. Further, Wisconsin and Iowa both enter Saturday’s matchup with two-game winning streaks. Of course, the Badgers underwent an impromptu head coaching change and installed Jim Leonhard, whereas Kirk Ferentz has led the Hawkeyes since 1999.
Now, the clubs will battle for a share of second place in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin will need to stick with the ground game through any struggles and slow down Hawkeye running back Kaleb Johnson to take down Iowa, which boasts a strong defense but the conference’s worst offense.
Iowa offense vs. Wisconsin defense
The Hawkeyes are averaging a miserable 263 yards of total offense per game, 28 yards fewer than the second-worst in the conference (Rutgers).
Spencer Petras has quarterbacked an ineffective passing attack which hasn’t exceeded 250 yards or two touchdowns in any game this season. In fact, the senior has thrown as many interceptions (five) as touchdowns while averaging 156 yards a game. For what it’s worth, Petras is currently playing as well as he has all season — he’s thrown for 412 yards with three touchdowns and no picks over his last two outings.
Petras was 9 of 19 for 93 yards in an uninspiring performance versus Wisconsin last fall and figures to struggle once again, even if the Badger secondary has regressed slightly.
Like the Terps last week, Iowa runs a tight end-centric passing offense. Sam LaPorta leads the Hawkeyes by a wide margin with his 44 catches and 458 yards, while Luke Lachey has caught 17 balls for 191.
Wisconsin limited Maryland tight ends CJ Dippre and Corey Dyches to 38 yards combined, but to be fair, that was half of Taulia Tagovailoa’s 77-yard passing output. With Hunter Wohler healthy and active, expect more three-safety packages as Jim Leonhard’s defense looks to silence Petras’s big over-the-middle targets.
Iowa’s best chance at offensive success will be running back Kaleb Johnson, who’s fresh off a 22-carry, 200-yard performance last Saturday at Purdue. The Hawkeye running game has been weak for much of the season, but with 362 yards over the last two games, it may be peaking at the right time.
Johnson has run for 553 yards and four touchdowns in 2022. Leshon Williams has 312 yards, although with a meager 3.7 per carry.
Only Ohio State has exceeded four yards per carry versus Wisconsin this season, so Iowa’s duo shouldn’t present too much of an issue — especially with stacked boxes and three-safety looks being feasible against Petras and the tight ends. Still, ending Johnson’s hot streak is the key to another dominant defensive performance for the Badgers.
Wisconsin offense vs. Iowa defense
Consistently great defensive play has allowed Iowa to compensate for its feeble offense and achieve a winning record through nine games. No opponent has totaled more than 361 yards of offense against the Hawkeyes, who’ve allowed 14.3 points per game despite yielding 54 to the Buckeyes on Oct. 22.
Having allowed 57 rushing yards per game over its last three, Iowa appears well-equipped to contain Braelon Allen and Isaac Guerendo after their dominant effort versus Maryland.
Linebackers Jack Campbell and Seth Benson highlight the Hawkeyes’ defensive front with 86 and 67 tackles. The sure-tackling seniors will be tasked with defending Allen and Guerendo’s power-speed duo.
Iowa rushes the passer very effectively. Linemen Joe Evans and Lukas Van Ness each have five sacks while Deontae Craig has four. As a team, the Hawkeyes have 24 sacks, so an oft-changing Badger offensive line which allowed three sacks last Saturday draws a tough assignment.
Graham Mertz’s improved ball security of late — one interception over the last four games — will be challenged by Iowa’s propensity for picking off opposing quarterbacks. Iowa has five interceptions in its last four contests and will surely look for some timely takeaways this week, especially if the front seven manages to stop the run.
A growing track record suggests Mertz struggles when passing out of necessity. At his best he’s still a complement to the running game, not an alternative. Thus, barring a large deficit, Wisconsin should continue handing it to Allen and Guerendo — and wide receiver Skyler Bell — even if they’re ineffective early.
Points at a premium
Saturday’s matchup projects to be a low-scoring affair. Only penalty troubles or inexplicable breakdowns would cause Wisconsin’s defense to surrender much to the Hawkeye offense.
As a result, the Badger offense shouldn’t need to do more than stick to its formula of frequent runs, sparse passing plays and – if necessary – field goals in the red zone.
Still carrying the interim title, Leonhard will look to collect his first road win as a head coach after the ugly Michigan State defeat in October. With a victory, he’d only strengthen his case to keep the position going forward.
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