Wisconsin and No. 9 Iowa are set for a classic Big Ten battle on Saturday morning.
The total for the game sits at 36.5, a lower number than Wisconsin had in contests against Army and Purdue.
It makes sense, though. The teams are mirror images of each other: stout defenses, inefficient offenses and team mentalities that the defense will be the thing to win the football game.
There’s obviously a few glaring differences in the two teams’ records (Iowa: 6-1, Wisconsin: 4-3) and each team’s ability to hold on to the football (more on that below).
So, to handicap this contest and see where the game will be won or lost, I looked at which team has the advantage in each critical area of the game.
All Betting Lines are Courtesy of Tipico Sportsbook
Run Game Efficiency: Advantage Wisconsin
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
Wisconsin’s rushing attack has come along recently, averaging 295 yards per game over the last three contests. The team has done it thanks to the emergence of Braelon Allen, the consistency of Chez Mellusi and improved run blocking from the offensive line.
While Iowa’s run defense is one of the best in the nation, Wisconsin has the tools to find some success on the ground.
Iowa’s offense, on the other hand, ranks No. 115 nationally in EPA/Rush and averages 3.1 yards per carry. That matchup against Wisconsin’s stout rush defense is not an easy one for the Hawkeye offensive line.
Wisconsin has a sizable advantage in this area.
Pass Efficiency: It's a wash.
Oct 9, 2021; Iowa City, Iowa, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras (7) throws a pass during the second quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Kinnick Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
I would give a slight edge to Iowa here, though the Hawkeye passing attack takes far too many sacks and negative plays to give them a clear advantage here.
Spencer Petras has been serviceable this season, completing 59.5 percent of passes for 1333 yards, 9 touchdowns and 6 interceptions (4 of which came against Purdue).
But the passing attack ranks No. 107 nationally in EPA/Pass. It’s definitely better than Wisconsin’s, but that just isn’t saying that much (we all know Wisconsin’s struggles through the air this season. The Badgers rank dead last nationally in EPA/Pass).
Both teams will do whatever they can to avoid forcing their quarterbacks to have to win Saturday’s game. Iowa does have an advantage related to the passing game, but I can’t give them a clear advantage here.
Overall Offensive Efficiency: Advantage Wisconsin.
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
Wisconsin’s matchup with Iowa’s defense is much more favorable than Iowa’s with Wisconsin’s defense.
The Badger offense as a whole ranks No. 113 in total EPA (No. 130 EPA/Pass, No. 53 EPA/Rush). Iowa, on the other hand, ranks No. 119 in total EPA (115 in EPA/Rush, 107 in EPA/Pass).
Long story short, Wisconsin’s formula of running the ball 80% of the time or more has a great chance of having significant success than Iowa’s of not making mistakes. And that’s talking about overall offensive efficiency, not smaller facets of the game (*cough* turnovers, more on that later) where Iowa has a chance to win the game.
Defensive Efficiency: Advantage Wisconsin
Oct 16, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal (5) shouts in excitement while entering the field prior to the game against the Army Black Knights at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
There might only be one defense in the nation better than Wisconsin’s: Georgia.
The team does not allow teams to move forward on the ground, are solid against the pass and pressure the quarterback along with the nation’s best. Were it not for some late-game collapses by the offense, this defense would be getting more run as the best in the country.
Iowa’s defense is also great. It just is a slight level behind Wisconsin’s.
EPA/Pass: No. 6
EPA/Rush: No. 4
Overall EPA: No. 3
EPA/Pass: No. 7
EPA/Rush: No. 9
Overall EPA: No. 4
Turnovers: Advantage Iowa
Iowa junior defensive back Keavon Merriweather, left and junior linebacker Jack Campbell drive Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson into the turn in the first quarter at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021. Credit: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen-USA TODAY NETWORK
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.
Special Teams: Advantage Iowa
Iowa’s Tory Taylor (9) punts the ball during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Penn State, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.
From my piece on one area that may decide the contest:
There’s another area to watch entering Saturday, one which has been a strength of one team while being a weakness of the other: Special teams.
Yes, Wisconsin kicker Collin Larsh has been lights-out this season, connecting on 10 of 12 field goals, and punter Andy Vujnovich has done a fine job. But it’s been a special teams mistake in all of Wisconsin’s losses that ended up turning the tide.
Against Penn State a short field goal was blocked, against Notre Dame a kick return touchdown changed the game and against Michigan a muffed punt gave the Wolverines control of the contest. And that’s not even thinking back to previous seasons, where dropped punts and timely mistakes have cost the Badgers in nearly every important contest.
Iowa, on the other hand, 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.