Elite Defenses Iowa and Wisconsin Meet

Elite Defenses Iowa and Wisconsin Meet
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For just the third time in the award’s 16-year history, Iowa will face an unranked Wisconsin for the Heartland Trophy. The last time Wisconsin came into this game outside of the Top 25 was in 2009. The Hawkeyes won that one by 10 points on their way to their first BCS Bowl appearance in seven years. This year’s game in Madison is crucial for Iowa in its chase for the Big Ten West. Wisconsin currently has two losses in the Big Ten, and a third would likely eliminate them from contention. Iowa, on the other hand, has only won four times in Madison since the turn of the century. A win for the Hawkeyes this weekend will keep the Heartland Trophy at home, and more importantly, keep Iowa in the driver’s seat of the West.  In this edition of the Heartland Trophy, the elite defenses of Iowa and Wisconsin will meet.

Top Tier Defenses

Wisconsin

The Badgers will enter Saturday’s contest with the second rated run defense in the country according to Pro Football Focus. The leader of the group is linebacker Leo Chenal. He earned the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week award last week after his performance on the road against Purdue. Chenal recorded nine total tackles, five-and-a-half tackles for loss, and three-and-a-half sacks. The week before, he tallied 17 total tackles against Army. After missing the first two games of the season due to COVID, he now has 51 tackles, nine-and-a-half tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. The junior is currently the sixth highest rated defensive player in the nation. Chenal was not on any preseason award watch lists entering the year, but he has emerged as one of the best linebackers in the country. 

The other force of the Badger defense is Jack Sanborn who also lands among top 100 best defensive players. Sanborn received several preseason award honors, and has been living up to the hype. At linebacker, he has recorded 47 tackles on the season and 7.5 tackles for loss. Sanborn and Chenal make for one of the toughest linebacker groups in the country. Their ability to penetrate the line and mitigate the run game has been pivotal in the Badgers’ success at run defense. 

Wisconsin allows just 53 rush yards per game which is the best in the country. Iowa is a team that likes to establish the run in order to open up other areas of the offense. However, they average just over three yards per attempt, which is third worst in the conference. Against this Badger defense, the Hawkeyes will likely have trouble getting their footing.

Iowa

On the other side of the ball, Iowa has had incredible success on defense thus far. The streak of allowing 24 points or less continues to 29 games despite the loss at home two weeks ago. The Hawkeye defense has allowed an average of 14.5 points per game this season. In the secondary, cornerback Riley Moss will be out again this week. He is still nursing a non-contact knee injury suffered against Penn state. Terry Roberts will play in his place for the second game in a row. He had a solid performance last week allowing just four catches in his first start at corner this season. The Hawkeye defensive backs have been in the spotlight all year, but the underrated group has been the linebackers.

Like Wisconsin, Iowa has been able to get great production out of the middle of their defense. Linebacker Jack Campbell leads the Hawkeyes with 64 total tackles and four passes broken up on the year. He also has two fumble recoveries including one for a touchdown. Campbell’s versatility at the linebacker position makes him a key piece to the defense. He can penetrate the run holes and get back to defend the pass as well. Next to him at linebacker is Seth Benson who has 50 tackles and an interception this season. This linebacker group will be important to Iowa’s success on Saturday as the Hawkeyes will need to force Wisconsin to be one dimensional. The Badgers rank 121st in passing offense this season, which is only nine spots from last in the FBS. Iowa will want to stop the run and force the ball into the air. With the inconsistencies that Graham Mertz has shown this season at quarterback, his passing game could play right into the Hawkeyes’ hands.

Where Iowa Can Find an Opening

Both Wisconsin and Iowa rank outside the top 100 in pass blocking efficiency. Giving Spencer Petras more time in the pocket is one of the improvements that Iowa needs to see for the remainder of the season. The Hawkeyes rank in the top third of the country in passing offense, but have been limited by Petras’ time to make plays. With time, he can deliver good passes, but it will be difficult against Wisconsin’s top 10 pass defense. On the ground, Iowa will have a difficult time establishing consistency. Wisconsin’s run defense is legitimate and won’t give the Hawkeye backfield any clear looks. 

Iowa can find an opening in this defense if they can find success in the short passing game. The offensive line will be back to full-strength this weekend. The pass blocking is still not great, but a healthy offensive front is imperative. Iowa has shown success in the short passing game this season by getting the ball to Keagan Johnson. The freshman has been getting involved in the offense a lot more as the year has progressed. With just six catches on the season, he is averaging nearly 15 yards after the catch per reception. He has one deep-ball touchdown this year, but his other five receptions have been on short-yardage throws. The sample set isn’t sustainable, but Johnson has shown his elusiveness with the ball in his hands. Last week against Purdue, he had a 38-yard reception on a quick slant route. He did it against Penn State as well, when he broke four tackles after catching a quick route on the near sideline. If Iowa can get the ball in the hands of Johnson on quick release throws, he is likely to open up the field. 

Elite Defenses Iowa and Wisconsin Meet

With bursts of success in the pass game, Iowa will have an opportunity to find the run game. Establishing the run is always a key ingredient to a Hawkeye victory. Tyler Goodson is averaging just over four yards per carry this season, but is likely to have a tough time on Saturday. However, if the Hawkeyes can deliver through the air, Goodson will have his opportunities on the ground. It doesn’t have to be much, but any positive gains are a win. This year’s Heartland Trophy game is bound to be a low-scoring affair due to the elite defenses of Iowa and Wisconsin. If the Hawkeyes can consistently generate positive yards on the ground, it can be demoralizing for a stout defense like Wisconsin. Success can be earned against the Badgers if Spencer Petras is able to gain some early confidence with his arm.

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