By Pat Harty
MADISON, Wisconsin – Okay, the first team to score 10 points wins.
That isn’t the case for Saturday’s border clash between ninth-ranked Iowa and surging Wisconsin, but it very well could be.
Points almost certainly will be hard to come by in Saturday’s game at Camp Randall Stadium as both teams are led by rock-solid defenses that help to compensate for deficiencies on offense.
Wisconsin has the nation’s No. 1 defense against the run, giving up just 53.3 yards per game and 1.9 yards per carry. The Badgers have held five of their seven opponents this season to 50 or fewer yards, the most of any FBS team.
Only top-ranked Georgia is allowing fewer offensive yards per game than Wisconsin’s 223.0 per-game average.
Iowa, meanwhile, leads the country in interceptions (16) and takeaways (21), and ranks third in turnover margin at plus-15.
Iowa also ranks second in the Big Ten and third nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 14.6 points per game.
Switch to offense, however, and it quickly becomes apparent why both defenses always have to be at their very best.
Iowa’s defense had a rare subpar performance in the 24-7 loss to Purdue on Nov. 16 at Kinnick Stadium, and it finally proved costly as the offense failed to respond.
Saturday’s outcome could ultimately come down to which defense makes the opposing quarterback the most uncomfortable.
Iowa junior quarterback Spencer Petras threw four interceptions against Purdue, while Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz has throw seven interceptions and just two touchdown passes this season.
Both teams will try hard to run the ball, but the Badgers, as usual, are having more success than Iowa in that department, averaging 219.4 yards per game, which is second only to Michigan’s 253.29 average in the Big Ten.
Iowa, on the other hand, is ranked 12th in the conference in rushing, averaging just 116.57 yards per game, and just 3.11 yards per carry.
It really is hard seeing Iowa having much success on the ground against Wisconsin’s 3-4 alignment, and that makes it hard to see Iowa winning on Saturday.
The inability to sustain a rushing attack would also put more pressure, and more of the burden on Petras to rise to the occasion, and to do so without the luxury of a running game to create play action.
Of course, Petras will have to avoid committing turnovers, but he also will have to make some plays in the passing game because that will probably be Iowa’s only way of moving the chains.
If ever there were a time for Petras to play the game of his life, and at a level he has yet to approach, this is the game.
The same could be said for Mertz, who was incredible in his starting debut last season, but average to below average ever since.
Iowa has to get back on track before it’s too late to win the Big Ten West Division.
Wisconsin has also won seven of the last nine games in the series, so this is about pride, too.
Iowa defeated the Badgers 28-7 last season at Kinnick Stadium, but that game now sort of looks like an outlier due to the impact from the global pandemic.
Iowa hasn’t won at Camp Randall Stadium since 2015, and that game played out on the field the way many expect Saturday’s game to unfold.
Iowa won 10-6 in 2015 despite only having 77 passing yards.
Wisconsin fumbled near the Iowa end zone in what could’ve been a game-winning touchdown drive.
And speaking of turnovers, that is the one great equalizer and uncertainty.
“They’re physical, they’re fundamentally sound and really when you play these guys it really comes down to taking care of us and doing what we do best and not shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Iowa fullback Monte Pottebaum.
Both teams are solid in the kicking game, but the return game, thanks mostly to Charlie Jones, is where Iowa has an advantage on special teams.
It might take a big play from Jones, or from fellow kick returner Ivory Kelly-Martin, to get Iowa over the hump on Saturday.
Home-field advantage is another intangible that could play a role.
Camp Randall Stadium, much like Kinnick Stadium, can get real loud, especially during the Jump Around, which occurs between the third and fourth quarters when fans jump up and down, causing the stadium to rock.
“I’ve been there once, and I’ll tell, it definitely gets loud,” especially when they’re winning,” said Iowa junior running back Tyler Goodson said. “And they have a lot of momentum on their side, so we have to do a good job of trying to take away their momentum and taking the air out of the crowd, so we can focus on what we want to do, and that’s execute and win.”
Goodson has shown that he is a threat to break loose for a long gain if he gets just a little space to operate.
The problem against Wisconsin, however, is creating enough space to do anything.
Head coach Paul Chryst is a Badger through-and-through as a Wisconsin graduate, and his defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard, is a former Wisconsin All-Big Ten Big Ten defensive back who played in the NFL, and now a rising star in his profession.
“When you watch his (Paul Chryst) football team, it’s what you’d expect,” Kirk Ferentz said. “They’re a big team, physical team, athletic team. Very aggressive. Play outstanding defense. Offensively really starting to hit stride now. Last week was certainly I think a big week for them.
“Just like you’d expect, they want to feature the run. They did a great job of that last week. Two really good backs. Very good up front. Got veteran receivers. Tight ends as good as you’re going to find. Really good there. They play hard on special teams, play well on special teams.”
Wisconsin has won three games in a row after a 1-3 start.
“It looks like they’re hitting stride right now,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Really, a good football team. It’s going to be a big, big challenge for us. Certainly, a trophy at stake. That’s important.”
Prediction: Wisconsin 12, Iowa 8