IOWA CITY, Iowa — Let’s be honest. Most of the game plan from last season, or any in the last several years, would still apply for the No. 10 Wisconsin-Iowa contest on Saturday (noon EST, ESPN).
The two teams are similar enough to be considered family. The origin of this era of Wisconsin football was started by a former Iowa assistant coach, Barry Alvarez, after all.
Both teams want to do the same thing to win this game. Which one will be able to do it? Let’s investigate.
When Iowa has the ball
The Hawkeyes are coming off their best rushing performance of the season, a 365-yard day at Purdue. Iowa wants to run and the news is encouraging on its injured blockers: tight end George Kittle and offensive linemen Cole Croston and Boone Myers.
The Wisconsin defense will be getting a boost this week with the return of linebacker Vince Biegel.
OLB Vince Biegel will play in a game 23 days after having a screw inserted in his foot.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 20, 2016
Biegel, a two-time All-Big Ten selection, was rated as the top returning outside linebacker in the nation by Pro Football Focus. He rejoins a defense where linebacker Jack Cichy is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and linebacker T.J. Watt, with his eight tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, is doing a mean impression of his older brother: NFL All-Pro J.J. Watt.
The Iowa passing game made progress the last few weeks, but questions remain on who will emerge as a secondary receiving option next to wide receiver Riley McCarron, if Kittle doesn’t play.
This matchup will come down to Iowa’s rushing attack, with PFF’s rated top offensive line in the country, against the Wisconsin run defense. The Badgers are No. 9 nationally in scoring defense (15.2 points per game) and No. 13 nationally in rush defense (106.2 yards per game).
Thanks to the return of Biegel, the Wisconsin defense enters this matchup with fewer questions than the Iowa offense.
When Wisconsin has the ball
It’s not going to be all that different from when Iowa is on offense. The Badgers want to get the ball to running back Corey Clement, who is the best playmaker on the Wisconsin offense.
Wisconsin will try to spring Clement free with presnap motion to get Iowa out of position. If that doesn’t work, the Badgers will turn to its offensive line to clear a path.
The Badgers will bring a freshman quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, to Kinnick Stadium whose been up-and-down, throwing for 680 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. He’ll look to connect on a big-play with wide receiver Jazz Peavy, who leads the team with 357 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
The Iowa defense made major progress the past two weeks. This is the first true test for the run defense since regrouping after the Northwestern loss.
Wisconsin holds the advantage at kicker. The Badgers bring in two kickers, Rafael Gaglianone and Andrew Endicott, who have converted a combined 11 of 12 attempts. Iowa wasn’t that interested in field goal attempts in the first half of the season, attempting only 5.
Iowa holds the edge at punting. Ron Coluzzi, the Hawkeyes punter, averages 3.2 more yards per punt and has had 17 more fair catches than Wisconsin’s Anthony Lott and P.J. Rosowski.
Iowa holds the edge at returner with Desmond King. Wisconsin averages 6.6 yards per punt return. but King averages 9.7.
After two early season losses, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz has the Hawkeyes playing their best entering this rivalry game.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst has the Badgers humming with a top 10 rankings and chasing their second straight 10-win season to open his tenure.
The advantage here goes to the coach with 18 years of head coaching experience in the Big Ten.
A loss here could very well eliminate either team from the Big Ten West division race, so, obviously, both teams need this victory. Both teams will probably run the ball and lean on their defense.
Four of the last five games in this series were decided by 10 points or fewer. It usually comes down to a big-play made late in the second half that decides which team leaves with the Heartland Trophy. This one could very well follow the same formula with points hard to come by.
Bobby La Gesse Prediction: Iowa 17, Wisconsin 14
Scott Dochterman Prediction: Wisconsin 16, Iowa 13