Friday, October 16, 2009

Big Ten Preview: Iowa at Wisconsin


The Iowa Hawkeyes (6-0, 2-0) look to storm Camp Randall Stadium and the hosting Wisconsin Badgers (5-1, 2-1) in a pivotal match-up atop the Big Ten leaderboard. Last week propelled the Hawkeyes further up the rankings with a close victory over Michigan (30-28), while the Badgers suffered their first loss of the season in a mistake-ridden showing in Columbus versus the Buckeyes, falling 31-13. Despite the Badgers losing control of their own destiny with their loss to Ohio State, they can still finish with a share of the title if they win out. Iowa’s destiny is still in hand, already disposing of 5-1 Penn State just three weeks ago and reserving a showdown with the 5-1 Buckeyes in the Horseshoe November 14th.

The Hawkeyes have already tallied quality victories (at Penn State, Arizona, Michigan), so approaching the midway point of the season we have a decent sense of Iowa’s ability to make a significant conference/BCS splash. On the contrary, Wisconsin’s margin of victory (excluding the mighty Wofford), has been just 5.5 over Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Michigan State and Minnesota. Further, last week’s implosion on national television versus the Buckeyes did not help critics’ opinions of the team from Madison, who have now put themselves on an uphill slope towards tops of the Big Ten.

Therefore, it makes complete sense that I see Wisconsin handing the Hawkeyes their first loss of the season. Here’s why:

1. Michigan found a hole in Iowa’s defense and the Badgers will follow suit – Don’t think the Badgers weren’t happy to see that Michigan found great success pounding the ball versus Iowa’s stingy defense. Although the Hawkeyes proved why they have the Big Ten’s best pass defense (171 yards/game), holding the Wolverines to just 124 yards through the air, they almost squandered a nine-point lead while the Wolverines decided to rush the ball late in the fourth quarter…successfully (finishing with 195 yards on the ground). Iowa’s rushing defense sits sixth in the conference (134 yards/game). To boot, the Hawkeyes faced the number two rushing offense last week in Michigan (197 yards/game) at home and now get to visit the conference-leading rushing attack in the Badgers (200 yards/game). Which leads to an extension of point one:

2. Michigan’s hard-nose, downhill style of Brandon Minor (6-1, 216) will be topped by John Clay’s (6-1, 248) –
Of course you can’t compare across teams and schemes, but it was became obvious that Michigan wore down Iowa’s defense behind the legs of Minor, who finished with 95 yards and two scores. Clay was contained nicely by Ohio State last week but leads the Big Ten in rushing yards/game (107) and touchdowns (seven) while splitting the workload with Zach Brown. You have to point to the recovery of injuries from the offensive line, which outside of the six sacks surrendered last week, looked like tops in the conference. So it seems like Iowa may have a harder time stopping the physical rushing style. To this point, Iowa shut down Penn State’s rushing attack (109 yards rushing allowed) against a weaker offensive line and shifty/speed backs in Evan Royster/Stephfon Green duo despite the Nittany Lions holding third place in rushing (189 yards/game).

3. Wisconsin is used to seeing a tight end as a pivotal part of the offense – This will be a great match-up at the tight end position for the conference elite as Garrett Graham and Tony Moeaki will be showcased against each other. In just three games, Moeaki is tied for team lead in receptions (17) and possesses three of ten of the Hawkeyes receiving touchdowns. Moeaki was a Wolverine killer last week, which made quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s play-action bootlegs infinitely more effective and eventually set up the run in the third quarter. But Wisconsin sees this every week in practice with Graham, who leads his team in receptions (27) and touchdowns (four, which is four of nine total team receiving touchdowns). The Badgers should be better prepared to stop Stanzi’s number one option.

4. Iowa is 2-4 at Camp Randall since 1997 (5-7 overall) –
Home field has to count for something, right? I was at the 2007 contest between these two teams in Madison, and number nine ranked Wisconsin prevailed 17-13 (although then quarterback Jake Christensen barely overthrew a pass at the end of regulation to a wide-open receiver that could have stole the game, but I digress). Weather shouldn’t be a factor (high 30s, partly cloudy at game time), and it’s not a night game, but all-time on October 17ths, Iowa has won just four out of 15 contests and is winless against the Badgers (1959 – lost 25-16, 1964 – lost 31-21).

Final Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Iowa 20

Photo Courtesy of Iowa Sports Information