The Wisconsin Badgers (4-1) will host the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in a game with heavy implications on the outcome of the Big Ten West.
In the Big Ten’s last season with a divisional format, Wisconsin and Iowa are the only two teams with a winning record in the West division. As the two frontrunners, this game will likely go a long way in deciding who represents the division in the Big Ten Championship game. Given the high stakes and long history between these two teams, Saturday is bound to be a fun matchup.
Wisconsin relied on their defense in a 24-13 home win over Rutgers last weekend. While it wasn’t pretty at times, the Badgers ultimately got the job done and are able to head into the Iowa game with two conference wins in a row.
Meanwhile, Iowa played a similar-looking game last week, defeating Purdue 20-13 at home. In a game won by their defense, the Hawkeyes only completed six passes, none of them caught by a wide receiver.
With Saturday's weather expected to be chilly with rainfall, there’s a good chance that the old-school, smashmouth styles of football these two teams are historically known for will be seen heavily throughout the game.
Iowa is firmly entrenched in their longtime run-first philosophy as running back Kaleb Johnson poses the biggest threat to Wisconsin’s defense. Johnson comes into the contest with 779 yards on 151 attempts with six touchdowns. Wisconsin’s first focus on defense must be combating Johnson.
Last week, Wisconsin faced a Rutgers rushing attack that entered the game ranked 22nd
nationally in rushing yards. Displaying a front-heavy defense, the Badgers shut down Rutgers’ running game, limiting them to 64 total rushing yards.
After going with his three-safety look for most of the first four games, defensive coordinator Jim Tressel switched things up to a more traditional defense against Rutgers, showing a four lineman set with two outside linebackers and two safeties in an effort to stop the run and generate more pass rush. Facing a blatantly run-first Iowa offense, Tressel must stick with the defensive philosophy he applied last week.
If the Wisconsin defense is able to limit Johnson’s impact, everything else should go smoothly. Iowa lost starting quarterback Cade McNamara for the season as he suffered a torn ACL two weeks ago, so they will enter the game starting their expected back-up quarterback, former Badger Deacon Hill.
While the Hawkeyes have won both games since he has had to step in, Hill’s performances have certainly been less than ideal. Since replacing McNamara, Hill has completed a mere 17 of 48 attempted passes, with only 225 yards to go along with two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Starting only his second collegiate game and his first on the road, Hill is expected to struggle. Pairing their quarterback situation with the expected weather, it’s most likely that Iowa won’t ask Hill to do too much, which is why it’s so important for Wisconsin to emphasize stopping the Hawkeye run game.
On the offensive side of the ball, Wisconsin is still working through the kinks of offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s newly implemented Air Raid offense. While the main point of the offense was to put more pressure on defenses through the air, Wisconsin has found most of their offensive success on the ground this season.
Wisconsin will surely miss running back Chez Mellusi, who is out for the season with a fractured left fibula. But with one of the best running backs in the country, Braelon Allen, Wisconsin’s rushing attack is still feared. Allen leads the Badgers with 472 yards on 73 carries and seven touchdowns, and Jackson Acker emerged last week with 65 rushing yards, filling Mellusi’s place. Facing their toughest defensive test yet, Wisconsin may want to continue to rely on their proven commodity: their running game.
That being said, Wisconsin will need quarterback Tanner Mordecai and his receivers to step up Saturday. First-year head coach Luke Fickell brought Mordecai, a successful passer at SMU, in to bridge the gap between Wisconsin’s traditional system and Longo’s Air Raid offense. However, Mordecai hasn’t looked particularly sharp in his first five games as a Badger, throwing for three touchdowns along with three interceptions and averaging 204 passing yards a game.
To beat Iowa, Wisconsin has to show some semblance of a passing game, starting with Mordecai. His favorite receiver so far has been Will Pauling, a transfer from Cincinnati who followed Fickell to Wisconsin. Pauling has 22 receptions for 243 yards and stood out against Rutgers last week, accumulating 68 yards on eight catches. Wide receiver Chimere Dike has also been a key contributor, and true freshman tight end Tucker Ashcraft found the endzone last week for his first career touchdown.
With Longo and a deep wide receiver room, Mordecai has the pieces to lead a passing attack. Will Saturday be the day we finally see a breakthrough?
Wisconsin and Iowa are two teams that know each other very well, and with high stakes and fall weather symbolic of an old-school showdown, Saturday has all the makings of a classic. With the winner in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West, no love will be lost between these two storied rivals.