by Maxwell Brusky
At Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, the second “half” of Wisconsin’s 2013 season begins. The five remaining games, all in succession with no more bye weeks, are too many to be labeled the “home stretch,” but starting against Iowa, the Badgers will start to put this season into final focus.
Prior to getting into the particulars of one the Big Ten’s best rivalries, some history of the rivalry need to be laid out. First, it is one of the most played in major college football, stretching back consistently to the second Grover Cleveland administration. Second, it is presently dead even, at 42-42-2. Third, Wisconsin and Iowa are two of the “classic” Big Ten teams reformed by iconic coaches after long stretches of ineptitude, began to even out a bit of the dominance by Michigan and Ohio State: Iowa’s trip to the 1982 Rose Bowl in was the first by a team NOT from Ann Arbor or Columbus since 1967; the 1980s featured appearances by Illinois and Michigan State, but until Wisconsin’s breakthrough 1993 season, it was otherwise all Michigan, Ohio State – or Iowa.
The manner in which Hayden Fry rebuilt the Iowa program after taking it over in 1978, and that in which Fry’s former assistant for eight years, Barry Alvarez did at Wisconsin starting in 1989, are so similar it’s almost eerie. They built the hearts of their teams with in-state players, keeping the best locals in the program year after year, and then added the firepower from outside the state.
They remade the entire cultures of their respective programs; expectations for winning football became the norm for players, fans, and the administrations. Beginning with the tenures of Fry and Alvarez, both fanbases were provided teams of which they could be justly proud.
The 2013 game brings all this with it, and the rivalry is happily renewed after a two-year hiatus due to what was probably the saddest casualty of the 2011 conference realignment. Following the 2014 realignment, their game will be a permanent fixture in the league’s West Division.
Although Wisconsin had an off-week, both teams come into the game off wins and are in the process of rebounding from lackluster regular seasons in 2012. Here’s what you need to know about the current teams and what is likely to happen in Saturday’s game.
THE STATE OF THE BADGERS
Coming into this game, there isn’t much to ponder for these Badgers. They’re coming off a bye that allowed them extra time to prepare for the first real power/pro-style offense they’ve faced this season, for Andy Ludwig to work even newer wrinkles into an offense that will square off against one of the nation’s better defenses (at least statistically), and, of course, for Chris Borland to bounce back in to game shape.
The Badgers come off a largely dominant win against Illinois. They boast both an offense and defense that’s near the top in the nation statistically with players in solid contention for significant national awards. They’re not perfect – well-documented questions remain with quarterback Joel Stave and the defensive secondary – but the Badgers are squared away health-wise and have yet to be soundly beaten this season.
Perhaps the most noteworthy items going into this episode of the 86 game rivalry between the two teams are that, with Gary Andersen, this will be the first time since 1988 that Wisconsin will be led by someone without deep Iowa ties, and the first appearance of budding superstar Gordon, the one-time Iowa commit who eventually chose in 2010 to remain in-state with the Badgers. It may be folly to believe that Gordon would have remained immune from the wanton wickedness of the AIRBHG had he matriculated with the Hawkeyes, but it’s safe to say that all provinces in the Badger Nation are glad he made the choice he did.
THE STATE OF THE HAWKEYES
Since finishing 2009 an impressive 11-2, when they were arguably a Ricky Stanzi injury away from playing for all the marbles, and prior to this season’s qualified successes, Iowa has been steadily on the wane. The Hawks entered 2010 with Stanzi again at the helm, a constellation of other senior stars, and lofty expectations. Following that season’s battle royale loss at home to Wisconsin however, the team began to unravel over the course of the next two and half seasons.
They limped to the regular season finish line unranked after gut-wrenching losses to Northwestern, Minnesota and Ohio State. The 2011 saw no improvement when that squad struggled to make a repeat appearance in the Insight Bowl, where they were trucked by Oklahoma. The nadir was last season, when the conventional wisdom was that after going 4-8, the exorbitant buyout clause in Kirk Ferentz’s monster contract was the only thing that saved his job.
This season, the Hawks opened with a tough home loss against still undefeated Northern Illinois but then reeled off a few impressive wins before losing at home to Michigan State. Off their first bye, they fell at Ohio State after what was by and large a well-played game by them on both sides of the ball. Last week, they prevailed in overtime against a reeling Northwestern team that, even in 2009 and before, had had the Iowa’s number. Iowa presently needs one more win to return to bowl eligibility.
The strong winds at Kinnick can’t be underestimated, but the box score is revealing as to where Iowa currently stands. That Northwestern was held to 10 points and 329 total yards looks impressive, but of those yards, 225 of them were on the ground, nearly 100 above their average – and again, the Wildcats were still missing Venric Mark. Northwestern was also able to convert 8 of 14 third downs. That’s not exactly dominant, especially against a team that’s suffering from some inexplicable and deep malaise that has yet to be arrested.
On offense, Northwestern’s 329 yards of offense actually exceeded Iowa’s 305 – Iowa also scored just 10 points in regulation, before quarterback Jake Rudock found power forward tight end C. J. Fiedorowicz in the first overtime period for what would be the decisive score. Most peg Iowa as a solid running team with bruiser Mark Weisman blasting through holes opened by one of the league’s best offensive lines, but of those 305 total yards, just 136 were rushing and Weisman, who had just three carries in the second half, had 56 of those. By comparison, Minnesota put up 176 while Wisconsin put up 286 against Northwestern – and Iowa’s 136 was actually an improvement on the 130 they put on Ohio State and definitely on the miniscule 23 against Michigan State.
Overall, though, this game is critical for Iowa. A win Saturday validates some of the thoughts that this season might turn to be akin to the 8-4 2008 season, which set the stage for the glory of 2009. A loss suggests the progress Iowa made this season is just an illusion and this team is just more of the same.
To be sure, up to this point, the Hawks have made some big plays, but they haven’t had a complete performance against a worthy opponent. Where they have played worthy opponents, they’ve either come up short (NIU, Ohio State) or were convincingly beaten (Michigan State, at home yet). On the other hand, prevailing in overtime against Northwestern, especially given the recent history between those two teams, had to be gratifying and confidence-building. These Hawks are definitely at a crossroads.
IOWA IN BRIEF – PLAYERS TO WATCH
This year’s Iowa Hawkeyes are not nearly as stocked with the top-tier, future NFL talent they’ve had over the last 10 or more seasons. Redshirt sophomore Rudock has been effective to this point, completing 61% of his passes for 12 touchdowns against 8 interceptions (3 of those were against NIU in the opener). Rudock also brings much more mobility to the position that did pocket passer James Vandenberg. Other than slotman Kevonte Martin-Manley, and occasionally productive speedster Damond Powell, Rudock doesn’t have the consistent wideouts that Iowa teams have had previously. He does, however, have future pro and senior Fiedorowicz as the top tight end (4 touchdowns) and he’s complemented by sophomore Jake Duzey and junior Ray Hamilton. All three tight ends have been on the field simultaneously and are as involved as the Badgers’ group in run blocking.
Iowa’s running game, mentioned above, has been inconsistent, but has the talent to be effective against most teams. Weisman is the power back (732 yards on 149 carries) while Damon Bullock brings a little more speed even if his numbers to date don’t back that up (364 yards on 92 carries). Left tackle Brandon Scherff is an all-conference talent who anchors a classically solid Iowa line along with left guard Conor Boffeli, center Austin Blythe, and right tackle Brett Van Sloten.
The star turns on Iowa’s defense have been made for the past few seasons by their three senior linebackers, Anthony Hitchens on the weak side, James Morris in the middle, and Christian Kirksey on the strong side. Morris is coming off a player of the week performance against Northwestern and the three have been consistently among the league leaders in tackles both this year and last. They’re not impregnable, but for a set of three, they’re the one of the best in the country.
Iowa’s line and secondary are improved from last season. The line will still be missing multi-year starter at end Dominic Alvis, but Drew Ott played very well last week. Tackles Louis Trinca-Pasat and Carl Davis are big bodied run-stuffers who both have pass rush skills. The secondary is anchored by senior free safety Tanner Miller (multi-year starter) and senior corner B.J. Lowery, who will likely be the latest in the long line of drafted Iowa corners. Their partners, strong safety John Lowdermilk and true freshman corner Desmond King, have progressed into their positions nicely over the past several weeks.
Iowa boasts an excellent kicker in Mike Meyer, and punter Connor Kornbrath is improving as a sophomore. Martin-Manley is on several mid-season All-American teams as a punt returner after returning two for touchdowns on consecutive punts against Western Michigan.
Statistically, Iowa’s 4-3 defense is one of the top units nationally, giving up just 18 points (13th) and 321 yards (11th) per game. While Iowa’s defense gives up a stout 129 yards rushing per game, teams with good rushing offenses have been able to move the ball on the ground; in the second half against Ohio State, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde took over and eventually sealed that game. Their 192 passing yards allowed per game tell the same story: NIU, Michigan State, and Ohio State were able to toss up well over 200 yards. Generally speaking, Iowa’s defense is great against similar and inferior teams, but not so much against good teams.
Wisconsin’s offense qualifies it as a “good” team, and maybe a VERY good one. They throw top-level backs in Gordon and the underrated James White (who was hurt and left the game early on in his only chance against Iowa, in 2010) at opponents, and for all the issues, Stave has been a solid quarterback in combination with the UW running game, especially when he has Jared Abbrederis on the field. Wisconsin’s offensive line has shaped up thus far into a smart, stout, if imperfect, group. Aside from Ohio State’s, UW’s offense will be the best Iowa will face all season.
When Iowa has the ball, it will also face one of the two or three best defenses on its schedule. Against Michigan State, Iowa’s running game was absolutely shut down, but Rudock, who threw 46(!) passes, was able to muster a few touchdowns and 245 yards. Rudock toned it down a bit against Ohio State (he threw “just” 34 passes), but was able to move the ball, including on an 85-yard touchdown pass to tight end Duzey that evened the score at 24 in the early fourth quarter.
The passing game may be Iowa’s best bet against Wisconsin given their issues on the back end, and even if the Badgers still clock in at two spots behind Iowa at 14th nationally in total passing defense (197 yards per game). Additionally, Iowa isn’t shy about boosting its tempo on offense; although Borland was out when Illinois scored all of their points, UW’s defense was pushed by the Illini’s fast pace on offense.
In a lot of ways, though, the two teams are on equal footing. Wisconsin definitely has more talent up and down the field, but they’re playing on the road. Turnover margin is a wash, with both teams at +2 on the season. Wisconsin has 16 sacks while giving up 9 of them where Iowa has 14 and allowed 6. On special teams, aside from the Badgers’ clear disadvantage at placekicker, both teams are passable as a whole and both have more than adequate return men.
An interesting facet of the match-up is that since the teams haven’t played each other since 2010, there’s hardly any starters who have played in it and thus have little experience with the other side’s players. In other words, for most of each team on the field, the game will be as new an experience for them as it is for Andersen and most of his staff on their maiden voyage through the Big Ten.
The relative parity between the two teams, plus the fact that both play a physical, power-oriented, pro-style brand of football suggests that this game will be hard-fought and close for long stretches. The Iowa defense, however, is more readily exploited by what Wisconsin brings on offense than the other way around. Additionally, on both sides of the ball – and especially running the ball and defending the run, Iowa has been much more inconsistent than Wisconsin. I see Wisconsin taking an early lead and carrying into the second half, when Ferentz and offensive coordinator Greg Davis have a better handle on Wisconsin’s defense.
Any comeback however, will be blunted and countered by an equally strong second-half performance by Wisconsin’s offense, especially in the running game – Corey Clement may even have a chance to get his fresh legs going in the second half. After an entertaining tussle, I see Wisconsin taking the game, 27-17 (that’s 4 touchdowns for Wisconsin with a missed PAT and not two field goals!).
BONUSES FOR READING THIS FAR
- Although White never committed to Iowa, the St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) quarterback who was a year behind him – Rudock – did commit to Iowa over Wisconsin, who also offered him (along with Illinois and Minnesota). Rudock was offered by five major programs; White by over 15
- Hayden Fry and Barry Alvarez each went to three Rose Bowls and have been inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. However, where Alvarez won all three appearances, Fry lost all three of his.