This weekend the Badgers will have an opportunity to erase the memories of the East Lansing debacle in Wisconsin's season finale against No. 17 Iowa. As uncharacteristic as last weekend's performance was, it is inconceivable that this week's contest will resemble their defeat at Michigan State
Iowa's offensive plan of attack is centered around sophomore quarterback Drew Tate, the Big Ten's second-leading passer (2,313 yards). Tate has thrived in his first year as starter, helping the Hawkeyes rebound from two early losses to win six straight Big Ten contests, and give the Hawkeyes a shot at the Big Ten title.
"I think he is very mature for a young player, he knows how to handle adversity very well," UW defensive line coach John Palermo said. "He's very athletic, he is very competitive. He can beat you with his legs or he could beat you with his arm, he is that talented of an athlete."
Tate has been forced to be the offensive staple for the Hawkeyes this season, a season that has seen a vicious cycle of injuries at their running back position. After losing two running backs in their season opener, the Hawkeyes have been forced to go as deep as their sixth-string running back. Iowa managed only six yards rushing last Saturday against a suspect Minnesota defense. The Hawkeyes may gain a reprieve this week with the potential return of junior Marques Simmons, who has not played since suffering a high ankle sprain a month ago.
"It's frustrating our lack of a running game," Iowa offensive lineman Brian Ferentz said. "As an offensive line, it's frustrating to not be able to run the ball. But that's who we are now. I'm all right with that as long as we keep winning. But certainly it's frustrating not to move the ball on the ground as well as we'd like to because this is a running offense."
"Rushing statistics are sometimes misleading, I think Minnesota sacked them about 5 or 6 times and had a lot of loss yardage plays against them," Palermo said. "From what I see on film they still do a good job of running the football when the need to run the football. Are they a great running team? No, but do they know how to use their backs? Absolutely."
Despite Iowa's lack of a formidable running game, the Badger front four might still be licking their lips thinking about matching up against an offensive line that has given up more sacks that any other Big Ten team. Palermo and the rest of the Badger defense feel they have to take advantage of every chance they get to wrap up the Iowa quarterback.
"They have given up 33 sacks on the year and [Tate] has probably dogged another 20 at least just because of his athleticism," Palermo said. "I don't know that you have to get a lot of pressure on him, I think you have to pressure him, yet contain him. I don't think you can take a lot of risks against this kid."
Risks may not be something the defensive line would be willing to take after last weeks drubbing, no matter who the Badgers are playing this week. Despite the 551 total yards and 49 points allowed, each of which dwarfed the previous season-bests against UW, the Badgers' defense still ranks third nationally in scoring defense (13.1 points per game) and seventh in total defense (277.3 yards per game).
The front four are still the main reason why the UW defense has thrived under first-year defensive coordinator Bret Bielema.
"These guys are talented. They're good. All four of them are good," Brian Ferentz said. "The inside guys tend to get over shadowed by the ends, especially the one [Erasmus James]. But the inside guys are as good as anyone in the country. It's a big challenge."
Palermo maintains that one of the keys to Wisconsin's success is obvious: tackle better than last week. The UW linemen and linebackers struggled all afternoon against Michigan State, failing to wrap up the Spartans numerous times. Iowa's offense, with Tate as its leader, will provide the Badgers with a chance to prove that last week's performance will not be repeated.
"I think that it is really going to come down to our front and our linebackers against their front and their running backs," Palermo said. "If we can tackle we will be fine."