IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa’s hopes of a second straight Big Ten West Division title runs down the same path the Hawkeyes took en route to the 2015 title — into the teeth of the Wisconsin defense.
Unranked Iowa (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) hosts No. 10 Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) at noon ET (11 a.m. CT) Saturday on ESPN. It’s the teams’ 90th meeting with the Badgers holding a 44-43-2 series lead.
The game is almost a de facto divisional elimination game. Iowa still must face No. 3 Michigan and No. 8 Nebraska in November, so a loss Saturday removes any margin for error. Wisconsin already has two league losses and a third would make chances of winning the West remote at best.
Here are five keys for the Hawkeyes in their Heartland Trophy battle with the Badgers:
1. Protect QB C.J. Beathard
The Hawkeyes have given up 18 sacks, the second-most among Big Ten teams. The Badgers have 17 sacks, tied for third-most in the conference. Wisconsin sacked Beathard four times and registered seven quarterback hurries in last year’s game at Camp Randall Stadium — a game the Hawkeyes still won 10-6. Any disruption in Iowa’s passing game could come with consequences for the offense and the defense this time.
2. Establish the run
Iowa’s two-pronged rushing attack with Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels has the Hawkeyes averages 180 yards a game, and that’s with stinkers against North Dakota State (34 yards) and Northwester (79 yards). Wadley (592 yards) and Daniels (589) rank eighth and ninth, respectively, in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. Among the league’s top 10 running backs, Wadley is tied for the league lead in yards per carry (7.4) and rushing touchdowns (8).
3. Get off the field on third down
The Hawkeyes have allowed their last two opponents to convert just 9-of-30 third-down opportunities. That kind of percentage is critical against the Badgers, who have converted 41.3 percent on third down against mostly high-level competition. Last year Wisconsin reset the downs just four times in 13 third-down chances against Iowa.
4. Use the tight end
Few college programs produce NFL tight ends quite like the Hawkeyes and Badgers. Since 2000, eight Iowa tight ends and six Wisconsin tight ends have been drafted into the NFL. Iowa tight end George Kittle, the likely next high-round draft pick, scored the only touchdown in last year’s game — a 1-yard reception from Beathard in the second quarter that gave the Hawkeyes the lead for good. If Kittle can fight off a foot injury, he’ll be a vital piece in this game. So could true freshman Noah Fant.
5. Slow Corey Clement
Clement averages nearly 97 rushing yards a game and he’s faced two of the Big Ten’s top 3 rush defenses (No. 1 Michigan and No. 3 Ohio State — the other is his own). Clement didn’t play in last year’s game, which was a factor in the outcome. After a dreadful start, Iowa’s traditionally stout run defense has returned the last two weeks, holding Minnesota and Purdue to a combined 149 rushing yards.