"Whenever we're recruiting a tight end, I'll guarantee you it's us and Iowa in there quite a bit, especially dealing with the Midwest," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "They really like to go to those tight ends in clutch situations, and that's the key part."
The key part when Wisconsin hosts Iowa this Saturday at Camp Randall will be which team's featured tight ends will be able to get the most out of the production thrown their way. Throughout the course of their careers, Iowa senior Tony Moeaki and senior Garrett Graham have been the two standouts at their position for their respective teams.
After missing three games because of an ankle injury, and seeing the Hawkeyes offense struggle because of it, Moeaki returned to the lineup last weekend against Michigan, catching six passes for 105 yards and two key touchdowns in a 30-28 victory.
Moeaki is a big factor for No.11 Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) on offense because of the Hawkeyes absence of a solid running back and junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi having thrown eight interceptions to 10 touchdown passes.
Iowa is ninth in the Big Ten in scoring offense (25.7 ppg) and eighth in rushing offense (130.2 ypg) but the Hawkeyes have survived based on a defense forcing a league-high 19 turnovers, a turnover margin of plus-nine, best in the league and Moeaki being a playmaker.
"I am a little biased, but I think Tony is one of the better players in the country," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. "If you just look at his production, he's got 17 catches in three games. When he's in there, we are a better team offensively. It helps when you have a real good tight end. When he's in there, we are a better team offensively."
Although Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien has developed a good report with all his receivers, which is evident by the stat that 11 different players have caught a pass through six games, Graham is again the main target for the Badgers. The senior from New Jersey leads the team in catches (27) and touchdowns (4) and is third on the team in yards (303).
"It's good to see the ball being spread around, and that's especially important as we get deeper into the season," Graham said. "We all can do a lot of things and Coach Chryst puts us in the position to make plays. It's great, and hopefully we can keep building on it."
While the senior has always been a pass-catching threat, Graham, under the tutelage tight end coach Joe Rudolph, has improved the most this year is in his run blocking, which was evident by his key kick-out block on a fake field goal attempt that got senior Chris Maragos the team's only touchdown last weekend.
"He's help us a lot in blocking," Graham said of Rudolph, who was also a former UW offensive lineman. "Obviously with him being a former lineman here, he knows his technique and he recognizes the coverage. He explains it real well into detail and that helps us run routes and out on the field."
While Graham is the physical one of the group, junior Lance Kendricks is the speedster. One of the few players that proudly represent Milwaukee's City Conference (along with former Badgers Michael Bennett, Darryl Carter and DeAndre Levy), Kendricks has been improving since last season's spring football, as injuries to Graham and Travis Beckum open the door for Kendricks to get countless reps.
"There was nobody else to give reps to because there was nobody else in camp," Rudolph said with a laugh. "He did some good things then, and you could kind of see it. He grew a lot last year with the opportunities that he had and he has started to become more accountable and more consistent.
"What Garrett and Lance have done is found ways to help the team. Different guys have earned different roles and that shows what they do best. I think that's neat, because it shows that they work hard and care about it."
Even with each team having a solid tight end on their roster, that hasn't stopped Wisconsin and Iowa from going after the most prized tight end in the Midwest. A four-star athlete rated as the second-best tight end in the country by Scout.com, C.J. Fiedorowicz originally committed to Illinois in July, but has reopened his recruitment and his favoring, of course, Iowa and Wisconsin.
As a junior, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound Fiedorowicz recorded 49 receptions for 809 yards and 11 touchdowns, falling into both categories of how Rudolph recruits his tight ends.
"I think first and foremost, you are trying to find those same attributes – smart, tough and athletic that can run," Rudolph said of what he's looking for. "Within that, there are different roles and you have that in mind. There have been guys like Travis and guys like Garrett and everything in between. You keep that in mind when you are recruiting because there is success in all the different roles."
Added Ferentz: "If you have a good tight end, you can create some challenges for a defensive team. The only challenge is finding those guys because they are tough to find. They are like a 7-foot center in basketball. There aren't just a lot around."
They will be easy to spot on Saturday.
No.11 Iowa (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) vs. Wisconsin (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, October 17 at 11 a.m. CT
Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321/FieldTurf)
Television - ESPN (Dave Pasch, Bob Griese and Chris Spielman)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)
Series – Series tied 41-41-2 (UW leads 26-17-1 in Madison)
Last Meeting - Iowa won, 38-16, on Oct. 18, 2008 in Iowa City
Saturday will be the 102nd Homecoming game at Wisconsin. The Badgers are 52-44-5 on Homecoming. UW has won five consecutive Homecoming games, winning all five of the contests while Bret Bielema has been on staff.
Wisconsin has forced 16 turnovers this season, tied for seventh-most in the country. In three consecutive games, UW has scored 42 points off turnovers.
Four of Wisconsin's five wins have come by eight points or less. Under Bielema, the Badgers are 14-5 in games decided by eight points or less.
OSU converted on just 3-of-11 first downs. During Big Ten play, UW's opponents are converting just 34.3 percent (12-of-35) of their third-down attempts, second best in the conference.
Ten different Badgers have registered at least .5 sacks. Last year, only eight different UW players recorded sacks.
Wisconsin leads the Big Ten and ranks 22nd in the country in rushing offense, averaging 200.7 yards per game on the ground.
Iowa has opened the season with six straight wins for the first time since 1985. The Hawkeyes won their first seven games on the way to the 1985 Big Ten title.
Iowa has won three of its six games by a total of six points, with wins by one, two and three points.
Iowa has collected 19 turnovers in six games, including 12 pass interceptions. Iowa ranks second nationally in interceptions, is tied for second in total turnovers and tied for 16th in fumble recoveries. The Hawkeyes had 23 interceptions in 13 games last season.
Four of Iowa's six opponents scored 17 points or less. The two opponents who scored over 20 points were aided by a defensive touchdown.
Iowa won the first two meetings in which the Heartland Trophy was on the line, before Wisconsin won in both 2006 and 2007. Iowa's home win last year returned the trophy to Iowa City.
Wisconsin holds an 8-4 record against Iowa when the Hawkeyes visit for homecoming. Iowa has been Wisconsin's homecoming opponent just once (1997) since 1979.
Pop quiz, Florida holds the longest winning streak in the nation at 15 games, but which team is No.2? Alabama, USC, Texas, Oklahoma? Well, since I wouldn't bring up a stat that isn't relevant, it's Iowa, as you probably would have guessed by now.
Iowa's 10-game winning streak ranks second best in the nation and has allowed them to remain one of nine unbeaten Division I teams and one of only two teams with perfect 6-0 records.
That stat might be a memory on the ride back to Iowa City. The match-up here is so incredibly similar - two teams with solid defenses, a top-of-the-line tight end and traditional no-frills offenses - that the winner on Saturday could come down which team plays mistake-free football. Against these two defenses (Iowa has 19 turnovers in six games while UW has 16), that might be a tall order.
However, Wisconsin's offense is far more balanced than Iowa's and the Badgers seemingly have a better quarterback, running back, wide receivers and a tight end than the Hawkeyes. One thinks that should count for something.
Unranked Wisconsin is a 2.5-point favorite over an 11th-ranked team. I call this the ‘Juice/Mendenhall' effect. UW was a top-five team and an underdog in 2007 when they traveled to Champaign. A balanced passing and running game made it hard on the Badgers all game long and they came back with the ‘L.'
Iowa hasn't seen an offense quite like the one they are going to see on Saturday. After his first loss of the season, Bielema and his Badgers head into the bye week on a high note, as the former Iowa defensive lineman with a Hawkeye tattoo on his calf will beat his former mentor by four.
Wisconsin 21, Iowa 17
Straight up: 5-1
Against the Spread: 4-2