Five keys to a Wisconsin victory over Iowa on Saturday

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The Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes are set for an old-fashioned Big Ten slugfest on Saturday.

Each offense ranks near the bottom of the nation in offensive efficiency (Wisconsin No. 113, Iowa No. 119), and each defense ranks near the top (Wisconsin No. 3, Iowa No. 4). What does that set up for? A game where crossing the 50 yard-line may feel like scoring a touchdown.

Related: Re-ranking the teams Wisconsin has faced this season

Yes, turnovers will likely decide the winner with Iowa boasting a ridiculous +12 turnover differential and Wisconsin sitting at -8. But aside from that statistic, there are several areas of the game where the Badgers must dominate.

Here are five keys to a Wisconsin victory:

Field position

Oct 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) hands the ball off to Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing screams Big Ten football like a game where crossing the 50-yard-line feels like scoring a touchdown.

That could be what we see on Saturday, as neither team is expected to find much success on offense.

So Wisconsin’s first key to victory? Playing the game on Iowa’s side of the field.

Andy Vujnovich will need to play well, Wisconsin will need to take care of the football and the Badger defense will need to thwart Iowa’s scoring chances.

Turnovers play the biggest role here, as Iowa is No. 2 in the nation in starting field position thanks to one of the nation’s best turnover differentials.

But we saw signs of that tide changing two weeks ago when Spencer Petras threw four interceptions against Purdue. The more plays Wisconsin’s offense runs in Iowa territory, and Iowa’s offense is forced back deep, the more chances the Badgers have to make an explosive defensive play and win the football game.

Explosive plays on offense

Oct 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) runs against Purdue Boilermakers linebacker Jaylan Alexander (36) during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

In a game defined by field position, punting, third-down stops and turnovers, explosive plays on offense will be necessary to control the flow and flip the field when necessary.

Wisconsin had those explosive plays against Purdue, as Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi both broke their share of long runs. Iowa has had it all season, as their play-action attack has allowed Spencer Petras to find targets down the field in critical moments.

Whichever team finds more plays of 20+ yards will likely go on to win the football game.

Graham Mertz must take care of the football, convert critical 3rd down opportunities

Oct 16, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) rushes for a touchdown in front of Army Black Knights linebacker Daryan McDonald (30) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Graham Mertz only attempted 8 passes in Wisconsin’s win last weekend. That’s a clear path to victory for the Badgers, as the offense was able to operate on schedule without the risk of turning the ball over to the other team. Pair that with Wisconsin ranking last in the nation in passing efficiency, and you see why Paul Chryst only had Mertz attempt two passes in the second half Saturday.

The task will not be as easy on Saturday against a great Iowa rush defense, so Mertz will inevitably be tasked with making necessary plays with his arm.

The first thing Mertz has to do is take care of the football. Iowa enters the contest with a nation’s-best 16 interceptions and has a ridiculous +12 turnover margin.

Mertz also needs to make big-time throws in critical moments. Iowa’s defense ranks No. 2 in early-down efficiency and only allows teams to pick up a first down on 1st or 2nd down 62% of the time.

What does that mean? Wisconsin will face many third-and-long or third-and-medium situations. Graham Mertz’s arm will be the key to extending many of those drives and keeping the ball on Iowa’s side of the field.

Wisconsin must contain Tyler Goodson, the Iowa ground game

Dec 12, 2020; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes running back Tyler Goodson (15) runs the ball as Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal (45) looks to make the tackle during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest key to Iowa’s offensive attack is the efficiency of the ground game, led by running back Tyler Goodson.

The play-action passing game is opened up, as well as the field as a whole, when the Hawkeyes have the running game going. Like the Badgers, the Hawkeyes struggle to consistently move the ball when quarterback Spencer Petras is forced to do it all with his arm.

That’s what we saw in part two weeks ago when Purdue went into Kinnick Stadium and beat Iowa. Goodson was held to 68 yards, Petras had to throw the ball 32 times (and threw four interceptions) and Purdue was able to dictate the flow of the game.

Game script is significant for both teams on Saturday. If Wisconsin can shut down the Iowa rushing attack (which they have done to opponents all season), it will take away Iowa’s ability to operate on schedule and dictate the flow of the game.

Part of this starts with playing with a lead for the Badgers. But if Goodson and the Hawkeye ground attack is a no-show on Saturday, Wisconsin’s defense should find a lot of success.

Wisconsin must continue last week's late-game success

Oct 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Amaun Williams (16) and Wisconsin Badgers safety Collin Wilder (18) celebrate after an interception during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Second halves were not kind to the Badgers through the first six weeks of the 2021 season. The team fell short on numerous trips to the goal line against Penn State, lost to Notre Dame 41-13 after leading 13-10 early in the fourth quarter, was outscored 25-7 in the second half against Michigan and allowed Army to dictate much of the second half.

Last week that changed. Wisconsin outscored Purdue 17-0 in the second half thanks to an explosive running game and turnover-heavy defensive performance.

If the Badgers had played every second half as they did against Purdue, we may be looking at an undefeated or 1-loss football team. That’s obviously not the case, but this weekend’s contest against Iowa figures to be close yet again entering the final frame.

Wisconsin is a 3-point favorite and the over/under is set around 37, so it’s extremely unlikely this game is decided any time before Jump Around plays and the fourth quarter begins. If the Badgers look like they did last week, they should win this football game.

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