With No.14 Wisconsin winning the inaugural Freedom Trophy on Saturday against Nebraska, the Badgers will travel to Iowa City to play for the right to keep the Heartland Trophy in Madison for a third straight year. Since the Heartland Trophy was first introduced in 2004, the series is tied at four games apiece, but Wisconsin has won the last two matchups in Iowa City.
Iowa (7-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is coming off of an important 30-14 road win over Illinois Saturday and, just like Wisconsin, control its fate in the Big Ten West Division. With both Wisconsin and Iowa coming off critical wins and both teams advancing to Indianapolis with wins its final two games, it should be another hard-fought game between the Badgers and Hawkeyes.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would play an important role in helping the Badgers win the Heartland Trophy for a third straight year against Iowa.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): After Gordon’s stellar 408-yard rushing performance against a strong rush defense, many Badgers fans and college football fans will be gluing into their television sets to see what he can do for an encore performance. Gordon did struggle against Iowa last year, only rushing for 62 yards on 17 carries (3.6 average), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him surpass those numbers with the way he has been playing this season.
The question now is what can Gordon do against Iowa’s rush defense, which ranks sixth in the Big Ten in rushing defense and 46th in the NCAA. It is unlikely that Gordon can turn out another 400-yard performance, but offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will likely get Gordon out in space again to see if he can replicate the same success, as he was able to rush for 262 yards on runs to the outside against Nebraska. Gordon is averaging an astounding 190.9 yards a game and has done most of his damage when he gets into space even though he has been effective at times running the football up the middle.
Despite all of his rushing success, Gordon does need to start taking care of the football better, as he has lost three fumbles the last two games. Even though the defense has done well keeping points off the board, Gordon’s fumbles could prove costly in a tight game. Iowa has only been able to force three fumbles on the year, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten, but the junior needs to protect the rock better.
2, Vince Biegel OLB (3): Biegel may not have had as dominating of a performance as he had the last two weeks but was once again consistent on the field, finishing the game with five tackles, two for loss and forced a fumble. Iowa is fairly balanced on offense, averaging 163.3 yards a game on the ground and is averaging 236.3 yards through the passing game but Iowa’s offensive line has given up 17 sacks on the year. With Wisconsin consistently disguising and sending pressures, it should prevent Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock from having time to throw the football. One of the blitzers will be Biegel (6.5 sacks) and he should be able to consistently supply the pressure. Rudock has been good with the football (four interceptions, 63.9 percent completion), but he hasn’t faced a defense quite like Wisconsin’s and few outside linebackers like Biegel.
3, Marcus Trotter MLB (NR): Trotter is coming off of one of his most balanced performances after leading the team with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and recovered a fumble. Even though Trotter was a backup to the ultra-productive Chris Borland a year ago, the senior did fill in as the starter for Borland last year against Iowa. Trotter played a key role in that victory with a team-leading nine tackles and helping hold Iowa’s offense to only three field goals. Trotter has taken a big step up in his play since that game and has become one of the best players in the Badgers defense. He will be counted on to stop the run game and Mark Weisman, Iowa’s physical starting tailback. If Wisconsin’s defensive line can do its job up front creating gaps for Trotter to hit, Weisman will have a hard time hitting is 4.0 yards per carry.
4, Joel Stave QB (2): Stave wasn’t asked to do a lot in the passing game because of Gordon, finishing with only 46 passing yards on 7-for-11 passing, but did his part in helping keep the Huskers defense honest early. Iowa has the second best pass defense in the conference, only allowing 176.8 yards through the air, but it appears Stave is starting to get more of his wide receivers involved in the passing game. If Stave can spread the ball around to more than just Alex Erickson and Sam Arneson, Iowa’s defense will be stretched, allowing more opportunities for Gordon and the passing game.
Stave will have to be aware of defensive end Drew Ott, who leads Iowa with 11.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks, which ranks third in the Big Ten. With Ott being a threat off the edge, Stave will have to do a good job of sensing the pressure and get the football off in time to prevent any negative plays for the offense. If Stave can consistently move the offense into the red zone, Wisconsin has to be able to convert considering Iowa ranks 11th in red-zone defense. Wisconsin has struggled in the red zone at times this year, ranking seventh in the league converting 85.7 percent of their chances, but points could be at a premium. Stave will have to make sure the offense converts when the opportunity is there.
5, Michael Caputo (6) S: Playing a critical role in the defense, Caputo’s versatility in the safety-linebacker hybrid role has allowed the defense to achieve the success it has this year to this point. Iowa starts a pair of receivers over 6-feet and with Caputo having the size to help match up, the junior will be a critical security blanket in the secondary. In particular, Caputo could be focusing solely on Tevaun Smith as he assists the corners in slowing down the pass. Smith leads Iowa with 410 receiving yards and is tied for second on the team with two receiving touchdowns. Outside of Smith, Caputo will need to know where 6-5 tight end Ray Hamilton is. Hamilton is not much of a receiving threat (14 receptions, 114 yards, two touchdowns) as he is counted more on his blocking in the run game, but Hamilton’s size creates a mismatch in short-yardage and red-zone situations. With Wisconsin consistently bringing the blitz, Caputo could be responsible at times of making sure Hamilton doesn’t find an open space where he can catch the football clean.
6, Rob Havenstein RT (5): Havenstein and the rest of the offensive line will once again have to be ready to protect Stave and create run lanes for Gordon and Corey Clement. Ott is a threat off the edge but so is Louis Trinca-Pasat, as he is second on the team to Ott in both sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (10.5). Regardless of who Havenstein goes up against in the trenches he will have to be smart on how he uses his hands to avoid drive-killing penalties. Havenstein did a good job of keeping contain on Nebraska’s defensive end Randy Gregory, who finished with only 1.5 tackles for loss. Havenstein’s ability to isolate his matchup should allow the running backs to get to the second level, which will be key in making sure the Badgers can consistently move the chains.
Iowa ranks sixth in the Big Ten when it comes to third-down defense as they have allowed its opponents to convert on 35.3 percent of the time. Wisconsin has struggled at times to convert (39 percent). In order for them to keep the chains moving, Havenstein will need to win his battle in the trenches to allow the play to have success.
7, Alex Erickson WR (NR): Erickson may have only had two receptions and Iowa has been good in pass coverage this year, but the junior is likely going to be the first player Stave targets as he goes through his reads, likely on intermediate throws to allow him to get up the field to gain positive yards. Iowa is tied for fifth in passing touchdowns allowed in the Big Ten with 12, so Erickson could have his chances if the Badgers get in the red zone. Iowa is only allowing 6.1 yards a pass, so deep passes will be at a premium, something Stave and Erickson have been able to hook up on during the second half of the season. Erickson will likely line up against Greg Mabin and/or Desmond King, who each have recorded one interception on the year and a handful of pass deflections and breakups. Erickson will have to make sure he is smart in his route running ability and he doesn’t allow either of the two corners a chance at making a play.
Others to Note
Corey Clement RB: Clement suffered a stinger during his 17-yard touchdown run and was able to return, but it did limit how effective he was. If Gordon needs a break. Clement will be called on to try and help the run game. Clement is having a successful season with 742 rushing yards, which ranks him ninth in the Big Ten. With the game likely being physical, Clement will be counted on to help wear Iowa’s defense down and give the Badger defense get a rest on the sidelines.
Kenzel Doe WR: With Wisconsin needing a second wide receiver to step up and take some pressure off of Erickson, Doe has been productive, recording a reception in every Big Ten game but one. Even though he isn’t lighting up the stat book with receptions, he has become another option for Stave in the passing game. In addition to being an offensive target, Doe will be key for Wisconsin on special teams, specifically on punt returns. Iowa has done a good job all year preventing big returns, only allowing the punt returner an average of 1.6 yards a return. Doe ranks second in the Big Ten in punt return average (11.6 yards a return) and has eight returns this season of 15 yards or more. When that has happened, the Badgers offense has been able to score seven touchdowns.
Derek Landisch MLB: Landisch continues to be a steady performer amongst the Badgers linebackers. Like Trotter, Landisch will be counted on to help slow down the run from the inside. With Weisman being such a physical back, it will take more than one person to tackle him. Landisch always seems to be in on a play, as he’s second on the team with 59 tackles. He has also done a good job of making plays in the backfield by reading and seeing gaps, as he is second on the team behind Biegel with 12 tackles for loss.
Joe Schobert OLB: The reigning Big Ten defensive player of the week is going to be right with Biegel in trying to help supply the pressure on Rudock. Schobert had an outstanding performance against Nebraska, recording 11 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, one pass breakup and a half of a sack. With the disguising of blitzes by defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Schobert will be counted on assisting in helping stop the run and pass and being effective in pass coverage, as he has a team-high six pass deflections and breakups.