By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – If ever there were a game that showed all signs of being a low-scoring, high-energy defensive slugfest, this is the game: Iowa versus Wisconsin.
Points could be hard to come by on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin since both defenses are rock-solid, while both offenses are average to mediocre, although, Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack is finally starting to live up to its reputation.
But it still takes nine position units to win a football game, including five on offense, and there’s always a chance that how things look on paper, or how they’ve looked in the past, will look different on the field Saturday.
Each position is important, and will have an impact on what happens in this key West Division showdown.
Here is a breakdown of each position, and which team has the advantage:
Quarterback: Some might joke that this is a picking by default because it’s no secret that both Spencer Petras and Graham Mertz have struggled. Neither is ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten in pass efficiency, or in the top six in the conference in average passing yards per game.
Petras is also coming off a 24-7 loss to Purdue in which he threw four interceptions, while Mertz has thrown seven interceptions and completed just two touchdown passes this season.
Both quarterbacks still are very much a work in progress, and in some ways, a slow and frustrating work in progress for their fans. But Petras has led Iowa to 12 victories in the last 13 games, and he mostly has avoided turnovers except for the Purdue game.
Running back: Both teams have a reliable one-two punch at running back with Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi and true freshman Braelon Allen leading the Badgers, and with Tyler Goodson and fifth-year senior Ivory Kelly-Martin leading the Hawkeyes.
Mellusi is ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 98.86 yards per game, while Goodson is ranked 10th with an 83.71 per-game average.
The Badgers have benefitted recently from the emergence of the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Allen, who has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the last three games after having rushed for only 49 yards combined in the first four games.
Kelly-Martin has made some key plays, but hasn’t been nearly as productive as Allen, who now rotates with Mellusi.
Both teams always have rugged fullbacks, who mostly block, but Iowa junior Monte Pottebaum has 10 carries for 45 yards and one touchdown. He also has three catches, and in a game like this, Pottebaum could be used to convert on 4th-and-short as he already has this season.
Receiver: The fact that neither team has a receiver ranked among the top 10 in receptions in the conference helps to explain the struggles on offense for both teams.
It also makes it hard to pick who has the advantage because the statistics are so similar at this position.
Danny Davis III and Kendrick Pryor both lead Wisconsin with 18 catches apiece, while Nico Ragaini leads the Iowa receivers with 17 receptions.
The Iowa receivers have combined for six touchdown catches, however, which is four more than Wisconsin’s receivers have combined for in seven games.
Iowa true freshman Keagan Johnson has shown big-play capability with six catches that have gained 187 yards. His first career reception was a 43-yard touchdown against Colorado State.’
Tight end: If ever there is a case in which saying a position is even, this is it.
Trying to choose between Iowa junior Sam LaPorta and Wisconsin senior Jake Ferguson is as difficult as trying to defend the two standout tight ends.
Ferguson was more accomplished heading into the season, but LaPorta has been more productive through seven games this season with a team-leading 28 catches for 332 yards and two touchdowns.
Ferguson, who is the grandson of former Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, has 22 receptions for 202 yards, but still hasn’t scored a touchdown this season.
Ferguson combined for 99 receptions and 10 touchdowns in his first three seasons, while LaPorta combined for 41 catches for 448 yards and one touchdown in his first two season.
It basically comes down to choosing between Ferguson’s body of work and LaPorta’s statistical advantage this season.
Offensive line: Wisconsin’s beefy blocking crew is finally starting to resemble a typical Badger offensive line after having some early-season struggles.
Wisconsin is ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 219.4 yards per game, while Iowa is ranked 12th in the conference in rushing, averaging just 116.57 yards per game.
The difference of more than 100 yards per game makes this an easy choice.
Defensive line: This is a tough call as both units are solid, but not spectacular.
Wisconsin is led by senior defensive end and former walk-on Matt Henningsen, who will make his 24th career start on Saturday. Hemmingsen has 18 tackles, including four tackles for loss.
Iowa is led by senior defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, who has gone from playing at the Division II level for two seasons to making All-Big Ten at Iowa. He has 24 tackles this season, which is the most among the Iowa defensive linemen. He also has six tackles for loss, and 1 1/2 sacks.
This is basically a toss-up, a draw, or whatever you want to call two units that seem so equal.
But it’s hard to ignore Wisconsin’s dominance against the run, and these guys have much to do with that.
Linebacker: This will probably be the only time this season that I don’t pick Jack Campbell and his Hawkeye cohorts because they’re really good.
Wisconsin is just a little better at linebacker.
Junior Leo Chanel leads the Badgers in tackles (51), sacks (5.0), and tackles for loss (9.5) despite only playing in five games. Chenal missed the first two games of the season, but he’s making up for lost time by being a disruptive force in Wisconsin’s 3-4 alignment. He also weighs about 260 pounds and moves well.
Chenal has 26 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks just in the last two games.
Next to him is senior Jack Sanborn, who led the Badgers in tackles in each of the last two seasons, and currently ranks second on the team with 48 tackles.
As for Campbell and the Hawkeye linebackers, they also have impressive numbers, both as a defense and individually.
Campbell is ranked second in the Big Ten with 67 tackles. He also has one sack, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
He also has a pretty good sidekick in junior Seth Benson, who ranks second on the team with 50 tackles, and sophomore Jestin Jacobs has emerged this season as a playmaker. Jacobs has 34 tackles and forced a fumble that Campbell returned for a touchdown in the victory at Iowa State.
Again, this is a difficult choice, but with Iowa coming off the 24-7 loss to Purdue in which the defense was shredded, and with the Badgers gaining momentum behind a stifling defense, it makes sense to pick the Badgers.
Secondary: One of the hardest things about this choice is not allowing Iowa’s dismal performance against Purdue to cloud my better judgement. It was just one game, albeit a horrible game in which the Iowa secondary was shredded by David Bell.
Both units are solid, but Iowa has been far more successful in forcing turnovers as it leads the country with 16 interceptions, and with 21 takeaways.
The Hawkeyes will be without senior cornerback Riley Moss, however, due to an injury, and his loss certainly makes this a harder decision.
But his backup, junior Terry Roberts, has played well in Moss’s absence, and Iowa has four other defensive backs with loads of starting experience.
Special teams: This is pretty even at kicker, and at punter, but Iowa has the edge in the return game thanks mostly to Charlie Jones, who is averaging 11.53 yards per punt return and 25.45 yards per kick return. The Badgers have nobody that comes close to matching those numbers.
Ivory Kelly-Martin also had a 67-yard kick return against Purdue.
Caleb Shudak has made 11-of-13 field-goal attempts for Iowa, while Collin Larsh has converted on 10-of-12 attempts for the Badgers.
Punter is also basically a draw with Tory Taylor averaging 46.16 yards on 43 punts for Iowa, and with Andy Vujnovich averaging 46.31 yards on 32 punts.
The difference, again, is in the return game.