Close games are nothing new for Wisconsin, having already played in four games decided by one possession. Being in a battle for four quarters against Iowa is nothing new either, as the margin for victory between the Badgers and the Hawkeyes is an average of 6.5 points. Wisconsin is 3-1 over the span, with all three wins coming at Kinnick Stadium
Here are BadgerNation’s five keys to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday against Iowa in the battle for the Heartland Trophy.
1, Establishing the Run
Wisconsin’s running game has been up and down through six games, as Corey Clement has posted the only two 100-yard rushing games. The good news is Wisconsin is coming off the Ohio State game where it rushed for 236 yards and a touchdown against a strong rush defense. Wisconsin will have a good idea whether or not the rushing attack is back against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have allowed 151.9 yards a game on the ground and every team Iowa has faced has rushed for at least 100 yards against them except for Purdue. If you take Purdue’s rushing performance away against Iowa than the Hawkeyes are allowing 169.3 yards a game on the ground.
Wisconsin’s offensive line will need to continue to make sure their pad level is where it needs to be in order to open up the lanes for the running backs. If they can do that, Wisconsin’s offense can control the clock and take pressure off of quarterback Alex Hornibrook in what should be a hectic environment.
2, Success in the Red Zone
Like the running game, the red zone has been hit or miss. The Badgers are converting on 78.3 percent (18-for-23) of their chances and have scored 13 touchdowns. Iowa ranks fifth in red zone defense (72.2 percent) in the Big Ten and has allowed 10 touchdowns through seven games. Whether it is a run or a pass, Wisconsin’s offense needs to do its “1/11th” in order to pick up the necessary yardage to have success.
3, Slowing Down Iowa’s Rushing Attack
Outside of Ohio State, Iowa is the only other Big Ten team to have two individuals rank in the top 10 in rushing yards per game. The combination of Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels average 84.6 and 84.1 yards a game, respectively, and both average at least five yards per carry. Outside linebacker Vince Biegel returning to the lineup after missing the last two games gives Wisconsin’s defense another weapon that should bolster its run defense, which allows 106.2 yards a contest. Having Biegel back will also prevent Iowa from focusing on trying to consistently take T.J. Watt out of the game, assuming Biegel can provide the pressure from the other side. If Wisconsin can consistently stuff Iowa’s rushing attack, it should force Iowa into third-and-long, allowing the linebackers to bring pressure. Iowa allows 2.6 sacks a game, which ranks 12th in the Big Ten.
4, Red Zone Defense
Wisconsin’s red-zone defense has been steady, having allowed opponents a success rate of 68.8 percent, which is fourth best in the conference. But Wisconsin’s defense will be put to the test considering Iowa ranks fifth nationally with a 95.8 percent conversion rate inside the 20 (23-for-24). Wisconsin has only allowed seven red-zone touchdowns and be benefited by the Badgers’ offense not putting them in many short-field scenarios. It’s important for Wisconsin’s offense to play turnover free and the punting game to deliver good hang time on punts, preventing the Badgers defense from having a short field to work with.
5, Back-to-Back games for Troy Fumagalli
Fumagalli is coming off his second game of leading the team in receptions and yards but he has struggled to put together consecutive weeks of strong performances in the passing game. It was clear that Fumagalli was part of the game plan against Ohio State, as he was responsible for three of Wisconsin’s six conversions on first downs, as four of his seven catches went for first downs. If Iowa is able to limit receiver Jazz Peavy, Fumagalli will be UW’s best option on third down. Of his 11 third-down catches this season, nine have resulted in a fresh set of downs. With Wisconsin’s inconsistency in the red zone, it might not hurt Hornibrook to target Fumagalli, who is still searching for his first touchdown of the season.
The last two weeks have seen the Badgers lose emotional games, making it important that Wisconsin establishes an early rhythm. In order for Wisconsin to take advantage of a defense that gives up 19.1 points per game, Wisconsin needs to establish the run to take some pressure off of Hornibrook. Wisconsin’s linebackers will get a boost with Biegel returning but with nose tackle Olive Sagapolu out with an arm injury, it leads to the question if can true freshman Garrett Rand can effectively step in the place as the starter. Wisconsin could also opt to use redshirt sophomore Billy Hirschfeld at nose tackle (a position he worked in during fall camp) or slide Conor Sheehy to the interior and use redshirt junior Alec James – playing some of his best football of his career – at end. The play of Wisconsin’s nose tackle will be important in order to make sure Wisconsin isn’t vulnerable up the middle and continues to give Wisconsin’s linebackers opportunities to create pressure.
Iowa has started the same starting offensive line combination in consecutive weeks just once this season and the unit appears banged up headed into this contest, two things that could help the interior of Wisconsin’s defensive line. In the end, with the way Wisconsin’s defense has been playing and the potential reemergence of the running game, the Badgers will be able to find a way to win a close game on Saturday. Wisconsin wins 24-17.