Wisconsin and Iowa will take the field Saturday and battle for control of the Heartland Trophy.
Iowa currently holds the trophy thanks to its 28-7 victory last season. The Badgers enter the contest having won 7 of the last 9 meetings, though, including 2019’s 24-22 triumph.
It’s safe to say Iowa’s control of the trophy has not been the norm over the last decade.
The game on Saturday will likely boil down to a few key areas: turnovers, rushing success and time of possession. These two teams are near mirror images of each other, so Wisconsin fans should expect the game to look like what we know as classic, Big Ten football.
After running through where each team has advantages, five keys to victory. one area that may decide the contest and a complete Iowa team preview, here is Why Wisconsin wins, or Why Wisconsin loses tomorrow:
Why Wisconsin wins
Oct 23, 2021; West Lafayette, Indiana, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) runs past Purdue Boilermakers safety Chris Jefferson (17) on his way to a touchdown during the game at Ross-Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
Because the ground game is effective again, Graham Mertz only attempts 10 passes and the defense continues it’s utter dominance. Oh, and the Badgers don’t do anything drastic on special teams or offense to hand Iowa the game.
Wisconsin has the advantage in this contest in several key areas. Its running game figures to operate more effectively than that of Iowa and its defense is second to none—even a bit better than Iowa’s stout unit. Wisconsin can control the pace and flow of this game like it did against Purdue—relying on Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi in the ground game and keeping the ball out of Mertz’s hand.
This will be a low-scoring game defined by ball control, field position and one or two key moments. Wisconsin wins this game because the defense is impenetrable and the offense can do enough to complement it.
Why Wisconsin loses
Iowa placekicker Caleb Shudak (10) kicks off during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Penn State, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa beat Penn State, 23-20.
Because Iowa is great in two areas where Wisconsin struggles: turnovers and special teams.
Even if everything written above happens (Wisconsin runs the ball well, defense plays great), Iowa has the firepower on special teams to create a play or two and the disruption on defense to change the course of the game.
From my piece on where Wisconsin and Iowa have advantages entering the game:
Here we go. If Iowa wins on Saturday it’s because of two facets of the game: turnovers and special teams (more on that below).
Iowa’s defense has forced an insane 20 turnovers (16 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries). Its defense has made play after play to give the offense short fields and make things easy for the unit.
Go over to Wisconsin’s side of the ball, the Badgers have turned the ball over 17 times this season. The quarterback has fumbled, the running backs have fumbled, Mertz has thrown interceptions and special teams have made mistakes.
You would think over time that these numbers would even out. But it’s clear Iowa has the clear advantage in this category, and it might be the single thing that decides Saturday’s game.
And from one area that may decide the contest:
Iowa prides itself on one of the strongest special teams cores in the nation. Kicker Caleb Shudank is 11/13 on field goals, Australian punter Tory Taylor averages 46.1 yards per punt including 12 punts of 50+ yards and the coverage teams have been masterful.
As I noted in my five keys to a Wisconsin victory, winning the field position battle against this Iowa team is critical. The Hawkeyes enter the contest ranked No. 2 in starting field position (38.9) thanks to those turnovers I mentioned earlier, but also thanks to great special teams units.
In a game with a total as low as 37 and both teams boasting similar levels of defensive dominance and offensive struggles, one or two significant plays can flip field position, hand points to the other team and change the game.
Andy Vujnovich will need to have his best game of the season, Collin Larsh will need to continue his success, the Badgers cannot make any significant mistakes in kick return and Dean Engram (or Jack Dunn) must both make sure the punt unit holds onto the ball, and make sure the Badgers don’t get pinned inside their own 5 yard line.
If Iowa wins on Saturday it will be due to those two key areas.