It's awfully early to think about ramifications of a game, especially the Big Ten opener, but the contest between Iowa and Wisconsin inside Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday could very well decide who wins the Big Ten West. Not only does it seem wild to consider a game this early that important, but not many projected Iowa to be in that type of conversation at all. But here we are.
Northwestern looks good as well, with wins over Stanford and Duke but they struggled in their victory over Ball State. Minnesota has been sloppy to say the least. Nebraska already has two in the loss column, losing to BYU on a hail mary and falling to Miami despite an impressive comeback. For all intents and purposes, I do not Illinois and Purdue factoring at all in the race for the crown. All in all, this is a key game for both programs.
Now, for the actual game. There's probably not two programs any similar in terms of what they want to do, their mentality, and their approach. Both the Hawkeyes and Badgers want to out-physical every opponent they face, they both want to run the ball first to set up the pass, they want to dominate along the line of scrimmage, and both have fantastic defenses. They aren't going to light it up ever in recruiting rankings, but they find prospects that fit their system extremely well and then use their excellent strength and conditioning programs to mold them into the players they want.
This showdown also will bring back 20th century football. Wisconsin uses multiple tight ends and even showed a formation last week that incorporated both of their fullbacks. Iowa loves to use the fullback, they have two they count on, and they showed a formation last week that incorporated all three tight ends. You love smashmouth football? You love a punishing and physical style? This is the game for you.
I do not expect Iowa to be able to run the ball with a lot of success. Though Kirk Ferentz said LeShun Daniels has looked better in practice this week, he's looked well below average in terms of quickness, explosion, and getting through a hole. His ankle injury has really limited the ability he showcased in game one. This doesn't seem like the type of game for Jordan Canzeri, either. He's a very good running back but his style doesn't seem to agree with what we'll see Saturday and I'm always fearful of this kind of pounding he'll take from a defense like Wisconsin. The Badgers have an excellent front seven.
The Hawkeyes do have an alternative weapon, though. Quarterback C.J. Beathard can run. He's shown it. It's more of an improvisational style and that will have to be on full display for Iowa to move the ball. He's the difference maker in this ballgame. If Wisconsin can't find an answer, he can go out and win the game himself with just what he can do with his legs. I believe this is where much of the offense will come from. They need big, explosive plays in the plassing game. I'm not sure if they find that in this contest but it would be nice if tight end Jake Duzey can add to it.
Defensively, I think Iowa fares well. Wisconsin's offense has struggled. They have a big, physical line as usual but they're pretty young in terms of experience and having the chemistry to work together. The last two games have helped with that but Iowa isn't Troy and Hawaii. I think the Hawkeyes defensive line can win that battle. If they play out of their minds, they can win the game. A healthier Drew Ott would be a welcome sight.
I don't think the Wisconsin offense is too much of a worry. I think Iowa contains their running game enough that it doesn't really open things up for Badgers quarterback Joel Stave as much as he'd like. The one concern would be the passing game to the running backs. The Hawkeyes linebackers have to be awake and aware and don't lose their guy. I could see Wisconsin getting a big play in the passing game that is just a checkdown or a screen and that would not be good for Phil Parker's defense. Iowa needs the big plays to win and they have no chance if Wisconsin secures them. Turnovers will be big.
I initially had Wisconsin coming out with a 30-24 win. The more I think about it, I see it being far less scoring then that. I still see the Badgers winning a close one, but with a score of 23-19 or along those lines.
Make no mistake, this is winnable for Iowa. I would have called myself crazy had I said that before the season. Their defense should have their way if they limit the big plays and cause turnovers. If Iowa can run the ball, they'll win. I just don't think they'll be able to. And if they don't, where else does the offense come from? Beathard can only do so much.