It is hard to get a gauge on how Wisconsin has improved since the season-opening loss to Alabama. UW has played at the friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium and beaten up on three overmatched teams from non-Power Five conferences. Although UW remains at home, the Badgers will get an update on where they stand as a team when they get tested on all fronts against Iowa Saturday morning.
Here are Badger Nation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory over Iowa (4-0), which travels to Madison for the first time since 2009.
1, Pressuring C.J. Beathard
Beathard has only been sacked five times in four games. His ability to escape the pocket will give Wisconsin’s defense problems if defenders don’t maintain the rush lanes. Beathard is third on the team with 151 yards rushing and has three touchdowns. Wisconsin will need to do a better job of getting after Iowa’s quarterback then they did last season as former inside linebacker Derek Landisch registered the unit’s only two sacks. If outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel can’t consistently find a way to disrupt Beathard’s rhythm, Wisconsin’s secondary could have a long day.
2, The No. 2 wide receiver
As expected, Alex Erickson has remained steady through four games and proved to be reliable option. Rob Wheelwright got off to a strong start through the first two games but had only two catches against Troy and none last week. Despite the goose egg against the Rainbow Warriors, Wheelwright has shown to be capable of making the big catches. He will need to make his presence felt early in order to spread out the defense and take pressure off Erickson and quarterback Joel Stave. If Wheelwright can’t deliver, Iowa will have no trouble double teaming Erickson and loading the box to stop the run.
3, Establishing the run
Thanks to returning an experienced defense, Iowa has shown it can stop the run by allowing just 84 yards per contest. This will be a good test for a UW running game that has slowly improved from the 40-yard disappointment against the Crimson Tide, hitting a nice high note last week with 326 yards against Hawaii. Doing a lot of damage out of a two fullback set, Wisconsin will likely go back to that again to try and wear down Iowa’s front. It’ll be interesting to see if UW, in typical Paul Chryst fashion, runs some play action out of the formation to try and catch Iowa off guard. Either way, UW will try to be the first team to rush for a touchdown against Iowa.
4, Winning the field position
Punter Drew Meyer can’t do Beathard any favors by giving him good field position to work with. As good as Wisconsin’s defense has been, only allowing three points over the last three games, Iowa is averaging 37.8 points a game and scored 60+ last week. If Iowa’s defense consistently forces Wisconsin to go three and out, Meyer will be needed to prevent the Hawkeyes’ offense from having a short field to work with and putting Wisconsin’s defense in some unfavorable positions.
5, Winning third down
Iowa has been efficient through four games in converting on third down - ranking first in the Big Ten at 52 percent. On the flip side, Wisconsin’s defense has been stout on third downs this year - allowing opponents to convert 31.5 percent. Something has to give. If Wisconsin can consistently get after Beathard, it could force Iowa into third-and-long situations. UW’s defensive line has to consistently get the better push up front to limit Beathard’s time to examine his options downfield.
This will certainly serve as a good test for Wisconsin, in particular how much has UW’s offensive line improved since week one. This game could come down to whoever is the most physical and wear down the other first usually wins. The offensive line will have to allow Stave time to throw and create the holes for Wisconsin to have success running the football. I believe UW will do just enough of that to win 27-20.