Wisconsin’s highly anticipated battle with Iowa for the coveted Heartland Trophy and control over the Big Ten West did not go well for the Badgers.
A dismal offensive performance led to missed opportunities, eight punts and two turnovers. Strong defense and low scoring is no stranger to the Hawkeye-Badger rivalry, but poor offensive play was the leading cause of the single-digit performance for the Badgers in this game.
Here are a few takeaways from Wisconsin’s second loss of the season and their next steps for the coming weeks.
Wisconsin lacked offensive momentum and aggressiveness, committed untimely penalties and was only able to put together three solid drives all afternoon, which combined for 201 yards and only six points. A third-down penalty backed up the offense on two of the drives, ending both of them on the next play.
Wisconsin went 2-of-17 on third down on Saturday, their worst such measure of the season.
Wisconsin heavily utilized running back Braelon Allen on their few successful drives, and the passing attack sought to push the ball downfield. The Badgers punted eight times, with Allen only compiling three touches on those eight drives.
Allen, the most electric player in the Badgers offense, was synonymous with success, yet his number was rarely called during Wisconsin’s uninspired drives.
What’s more, the Badgers were unable to set themselves up for third down, normally leading to a long pass attempt which either fell short or incomplete.
Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai was relatively unpressured in the first half but opted not to throw deep after the first drive. Mordecai suffered an injury to his hand late in the second quarter. Once Braedyn Locke replaced the injured Mordecai, Iowa ramped up the pressure and threw everything at the redshirt freshman, forcing throwaways and even a safety.
Wisconsin’s offensive play calling seemed unimaginative with few deep routes, instead primarily relying on hooks and out routes.
Any expectations of an Air Raid offense seemingly dissipated as the game progressed, and the positive balance of deep passing and Allen’s run game disappeared after the first few drives of each half.
Although the Badgers lose experience with Mordecai, who will likely miss time with a broken hand, they get an option to structure the game plan around quarterbacks Locke, Myles Burkett and Nick Evers, a redshirt freshman transfer from Oklahoma. Evers, a former four-star recruit, needs to get a shot, plain and simple, and Wisconsin needs to begin to get more creative with their playcalling.
When the Badgers had a set plan for their attack, the offense looked like a well-oiled machine.
One of the Badgers’ more effective plays was a delayed pitch to Allen, proving that setting up more designed passes or plays needs to be part of the offense. Telling an inexperienced quarterback to sit in the pocket while the opposing team rushes five, hoping someone gets open, is not a recipe for success.
Additionally, Wisconsin needs to design an effective offense for their players that utilizes their strengths in Allen and the running game while balancing it with the pass. If the Badgers can’t complete a pass, defenses will continue to pack the box and limit any run attempt.
A major positive for the Wisconsin defense was their ability to get past the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the Iowa backfield.
Their defensive performance returned to form following a quiet week against Rutgers, when they recorded just two tackles for loss and one sack. Although the Badgers typically only sent four rushers, they were able to get fast pressure on inexperienced Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill and play a key part in the Hawkeyes’ 43% completion rate and 37 passing yards.
Iowa running back Leshon Williams’ 82-yard touchdown rush proved to be the difference in the low-scoring affair. Iowa rushed the ball 48 times, consistently pounding and wearing down a Wisconsin defense that has struggled with defending big plays, both on the ground and through the air.
By the time Williams passed the line of scrimmage, the Badgers had six men in the backfield and no shot at tackling him. He broke a measly cut attempt by cornerback Jason Maitre, tossed safety Austin Brown to the turf in a Derrick Henry-esque stiff arm and was off the races for the game-sealing touchdown.
Although Wisconsin stifled Williams and backup running back Kaleb Johnson, overcommitment by the linebackers and defensive backs on short runs led to many of Williams’ 10-plus yard carries. Iowa did not attempt a single pass in the fourth quarter, instead burning the time Wisconsin desperately needed.
If the Badgers want to limit the big plays and stop the run attack from wasting precious seconds in future games, they must be patient when pursuing running backs instead of overcommitting and putting a safety in between the ball carrier and the end zone.
The Badgers will look to bounce back against an Illinois team that took down the hot Maryland Terrapins last week. A win on the road is crucial for their Big Ten West hopes.