Expert Intel on Iowa's Next Opponent: Wisconsin

Ben Worgull of BadgerNation provides his insight on Wisconsin and Saturday's matchup.

What has Wisconsin done best offensively so far? What are the concerns?

The passing game has really taken a step forward for Wisconsin, not too surprising considering Paul Chryst’s offensive coordinator background. Chryst stated from the beginning of spring that he wanted to open up the passing game and involve multiple options. The first step was to name fifth-year senior Joel Stave the starter at quarterback, allowing him to focus squarely on improving individually and not have to worry about looking over his shoulder after every bad pass. It sounds quite a bit like the evolution of C.J. Beathard, doesn’t it?

UW had a solid No.1 receiver in senior Alex Erickson, but the Badgers have seen sophomore Rob Wheelwright, senior tight end Austin Traylor and sophomore Jazz Peavy step up in the passing game and show they can be counted on.

Wisconsin has been known for years as a power running team with super-talented tailbacks and a stout offensive line full of all-conference players. That’s not the case this season, which has caused the running game to suffer. UW needing to replace three offensive linemen off last year’s 11-win team and have had a hard time doing so, as the unit was riddled with injuries during fall camp that made developing chemistry almost impossible.

Tailback Corey Clement was expected to be the workhorse in the backfield, finally getting the opportunity to be the star after playing reserve the last two season. What happened? Clement pulled his groin four days before the opener, tried to play through it and ended up making the problem worse. He’s going out be out a least a month after undergoing sports hernia surgery and might redshirt. In his place, UW has turned to a redshirt junior who started last season as a cornerback and a redshirt freshman to carry the load. To no one’s surprise, there have been plenty of growing pains.

What has Wisconsin done best defensively so far? What are the concerns on that side of the ball?

It’s a unit with a lot of returning experience. Wisconsin’s secondary has three three-year starters – including both cornerbacks – and three seniors, including both safeties. One of those safeties – Michael Caputo – is the team captain and has earned it by his versatility, able to line up in multiple positions on the defense and cause problems for offenses. Wisconsin might have the best one-two punch at outside linebacker in the country in senior Joe Schobert and junior Vince Biegel. Schobert is tied for the nation’s lead with 9.5 tackles for loss and his six sacks are tied for fourth nationally.

The defensive line is still young and the unit’s pass rush isn’t always consistent. Part of that is due to the nonconference teams that UW plays (quick passing quarterbacks) but part of that could be the youth with three first-time, full-time starters at their current position. UW also doesn’t generate a lot of turnovers, a huge issue last year that has carried over into this year. UW generated four turnovers against Miami University and only one in the other three games.

What went wrong against Alabama?

Simply put. the Crimson Tide were really good and were able to adjust to Wisconsin’s attack. The Badgers hurt Alabama throughout the first half with passes in the flat to the tailbacks, who were one-on-one with linebackers. The result was UW able to move the ball with consistency and stay close throughout the first half, despite the running game going nowhere. When Alabama took that away after halftime, they ran away with the game. It certainly did help that Clement was limited and Caputo was knocked out of the game after three plays with a head injury. Take away the key player on each side of the ball and it’s like going into a boxing match with your arm’s tied. It wasn’t pretty, especially when Alabama’s offense attacked the middle of the field consistently. In the opener, UW’s nose tackle, two inside linebackers and two safeties had a combined one previous start.

Wisconsin already has a loss, albeit to Alabama. They recorded wins against Troy and Hawaii but not in the impressive fashion some expected. How would you judge this team right now? Is it still a work in progress after the departure of Gary Andersen as head coach?

The jury is still out on this team because a schedule full of overmatched opponents doesn’t tell us much, other than young players are gaining experience. The offensive line and running game have consistently got better, going from 40 yards in the opener to 326 last week against Hawaii, but is that the group coming together, the result of playing overmatched competition or both? We’ll find out Saturday.

Defensively, this unit is really good. Not only have they yet to allow a touchdown at home through three games (and only three points), UW held Miami University to minus-3 rushing yards and Hawaii to 15. I don’t care who you are playing, that’s impressive. Although Chryst and eight of his assistants are brand new, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda returns for a third season, a big reason why UW’s defense has performed the way it has.

How much stock should be put into the early success of Taiwan Deal?

He certainly has been impressive, especially against Hawaii when he ran for 147 yards and two scores. Watching his runs, it’s evident that Wisconsin has simplified the playbook for him, mostly out of need because of Clement’s injury. Most of Deal’s runs are between the tackles, and he’s good enough to lower his head and grind out yards (evident by the fact that 17 yards is his longest carry of the season).

Deal was on the cusp of playing last year until a hand injury knocked him out the first month of the season and it was determined he would be better suited to redshirt. Not getting to play last year has been an added source of motivation for him and it’s obviously he’s getting more comfortable and more successful with each game rep he gets.

What do you think is the key to the matchup between the Hawkeyes and Badgers?

Whichever offensive line holds up is vital in my opinion to determining the winner. I don’t think either offense can survive being one dimensional, especially in a rivalry game when each team mirrors one another in so many ways. In games where there are very few style points, the team that wins in the trenches usually wins the game.

The local perception of Iowa is that it is still hard to know how good this football team is. It's better than expected, but how much better, is a tough determination. Out of curiosity, what's the perception of Iowa this year from your vantage point?

Frankly, I’m surprised. Like many people, I thought Iowa had everything laid out for them last year in the Big Ten (no Ohio State or Michigan State on the schedule and having Wisconsin and Nebraska at home) and was shocked that they performed as poorly as they did. I was in the camp that figured Kirk Ferentz’s run of success had long since passed … and perhaps it still has. But outside of Northwestern’s win over Stanford and at Duke, Iowa has the West Division’s best two nonconference wins. Getting over the Iowa State hump was huge and it was evident that the win over Pittsburgh in the way they won is something that can propel them.

Iowa appears to be a much scarier team than they were a month ago. 

Final prediction?

I’ve gone back and forth on this. I started the year thinking this would be a win for Wisconsin, but I left the press box following the Hawaii game thinking UW would lose this game. After all, the road team has won the last four meetings in the series, not to mention Wisconsin is 71-7 (.910) at home since the start of the 2004 season and two of those losses were to the Hawks.

Believe me when I say I don’t feel supremely confident in my pick, but Wisconsin’s defense has been playing so well since the Alabama embarrassment that they will be tough to score on. I think UW scratches out enough points for a 21-17 victory.

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