The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (4-3, 2-2) vs the No. 9 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: ESPN with Bob Wischusen and Dan Orlovsky in the booth, and Kris Budden on the sideline.
The last time: Spencer Petras threw for two scores and Tyler Goodson ran for 106 yards and a touchdown in a 28-7 Iowa win last December.
The series: Wisconsin 48-44-2
The line: Wisconsin -3.5
TE Clay Cundiff
TE Jack Eschenbach
OLB Spencer Lytle
ILB Mike Maskalunas
CB Alexander Smith
ILB Jordan Turner
TE Cam Large
TE Hayden Rucci
OLB Aaron Witt
THE BREAKDOWN: 4 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
These two squads are largely the same teams. Questions in the passing game, talented running backs and stout defenses. The one significant difference – and largely the reason one team is 6-1 and the other is 4-3 – is turnovers. Iowa does not turn the ball over and its defense causes a bunch of them, while Wisconsin’s offense has turned the ball over at an alarming rate and the defense has not forced enough. The Hawkeyes rank third in the country in turnover margin and the Badgers are tied for 124th.
Now, both teams flipped the script a bit in their last games. Iowa became Wisconsin in a loss to Purdue (four turnovers, one forced), while the Badgers became the Hawkeyes in a win over the Boilermakers (two turnovers, five forced). Is that anything more than a blip on a season-long radar? Saturday will likely tell us and potentially decide the outcome.
2) Two-headed monster
After two strong weeks against Illinois and Army, everyone wanted to see if the Badgers could run the ball against a Purdue defense that limited Iowa to 2.5 yards per carry a week earlier. Well, 290 yards and three touchdowns later everyone had their answer. Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen have become the 1-2 punch Wisconsin had been looking for this season. Allen has run for at least 100 yards in each of the last three games, while Mellusi has topped 100 yards in two of the last three.
But Iowa should prove to be the stiffest challenge the line, the tight ends and the running backs have faced perhaps all season. The Hawkeyes come in giving up 89.9 yards per game on the ground, the sixth-best mark in the country.
In Wisconsin’s four-game winning streak over Iowa from 2016-2019, the Badgers ran for at least 210 yards in three of them. With the team’s suspect passing game, it seems like almost a necessity for them to get close to or top 200 yards on the ground to win.
3) Mertz make plays?
It is probably enough to ask Graham Mertz to just not make any back breaking mistakes against an opportunistic Iowa defense, but this also feels like a game where he is going to have to make a throw or two for the Badgers to come out on top. Is he capable of doing both – no turnovers and complete some passes in a big game? It has not been the case for much of the season (two touchdowns, seven interceptions) and it becomes even more difficult against a ball-hawking Iowa defense that leads the country in interceptions.
Paul Chryst is going to have a decision to make: Use Mertz as a handoff machine like he was against Purdue (eight pass attempts), lean on the defense and hope it is enough. Or, use Mertz as a handoff machine but work in some short to intermediate throws to keep Iowa off balance, pray he does not turn the ball over, lean on the defense and hope it is enough. If last week is any indication, expect the former on Saturday.
4) Limit the big play
Iowa is not going to effectively move the ball against Wisconsin. Barely any team has this season against a Badgers defense that ranks first nationally in rushing yards allowed, 10th in passing yards allowed and second in total yards allowed. From a purely statistical point of view, the Hawkeyes offense is the worst Wisconsin has faced this season.
What Iowa has been good at, though, is taking advantage of short fields off turnovers and occasionally hitting on big plays in the pass game. The Hawkeyes have six receptions of 40 or more yards this season and Wisconsin’s defense was susceptible to throws down the field earlier in the season.
With what the Badgers pass rush has done of late, including six sacks last week against Purdue, will quarterback Spencer Petras have time to take those shots? For Iowa to succeed, he better, because it is the only way the Hawkeyes are going to have success against what might be the best Wisconsin defense of the 3-4 era.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Wisconsin has allowed 129 points this season. According to CBSSports’ Tom Fornelli, 65 of those points have come as a result of turnovers by the offense. That number includes three interceptions returned for touchdowns, a fumble returned for a score and a kick return for a touchdown.
— According to The Athletic’s Scott Dochterman, thanks to the turnovers forced by Iowa’s defense, the offense’s average starting position is the 39-yard line. That is the best mark in college football. The Hawkeyes opponents are starting at the 24-yard line on average, which is also the best in college football.
— Wisconsin knocked off No. 25 Purdue last week, snapping an eight-game losing streak to ranked teams. The Badgers have not beaten ranked teams in back-to-back weeks since taking down No. 25 Iowa and No. 19 Michigan in November of 2017. This year’s Hawkeyes come in ranked No. 9. In Chryst’s seven years as coach, Wisconsin is 4-9 against top 10 teams, including 1-6 in the last seven games.
— Iowa’s defense leads in the country in interceptions (16) and cornerback Riley Moss has four of them. However, the senior will miss the game with a knee injury suffered in a win over Penn State three weeks ago.