When Iowa has the ball
J.J. Watt is “the” Wisconsin Badger.
The 6-foot-6, 292-pounder tilts the field. He turned in an impressive performance against Ohio State last week, tying a career high with two sacks and three tackles for loss. The sacks were two quintessential defensive end plays. On the first one, he smoked OSU tackle J.B. Shugarts off the edge, blew by Shugarts’ help, guard Bryan Browning and was on QB Terrelle Pryor before Pryor, one of the fastest players in the Big Ten, could react. On his second sack in the fourth quarter, Watts switched sides and pulled a textbook swim mover over Mike Adams, a 6-foot-8, 300-pounder, like the biggest 12-year-old in a pee-wee game.
That’s one guy, but the Badgers defense fed off something in its upset of No. 1 Ohio State. Wisconsin seemed to find a gear that it hadn’t shown. When Ohio State spread out Wisconsin and tried running the zone read, the Badgers’ team speed shut it down. Ohio State had no consistency rushing, totalling only 155 yards, the Buckeyes’ second-lowest this season.
Pryor never found a comfort level. He rushed his reads early and late. He settled in for a stretch of in the second half, but his accuracy drifted.
Wisconsin’s secondary wheeled up with the Buckeyes’ fleet wideouts. Corners Niles Brinkley and Antoni Fenelus also were key in the Badgers’ pursuit. They are making a bid at the title “Big Ten’s best corner duo.” Fenelus, who’s fourth on the Badgers with 29 tackles, has two interceptions and four pass breakups. Brinkley has six pass breakups. Safeties Jay Valai and Aaron Henry also are quick to get to the point of attack on a rushing play.
Iowa has won all four games in which RB Adam Robinson has rushed for more than 100 yards. The Hawkeyes’ can’t have that as one of the “goals” today. Ohio State didn’t have the maulers to simply shove around the Badgers. This week, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz joked about the lack of size the Hawkeyes have up front. He’s cool with it. When told they list right tackle Markus Zusevics at 295, Ferentz said, “Is that what we list him at?”
Still, Robinson and 100 yards probably isn’t going to happen. The Hawkeyes have rushed for more than 100 yards against UW just once in the last four meetings. That “once” came with Shonn Greene when he spearheaded a 254-yard effort in 2008.
This will challenge the core of what has made Iowa’s offense go this season — quarterback Ricky Stanzi, wide receivers Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt and tight end Allen Reisner.
Wisconsin hasn’t played a traditional two-deep safety against the Hawkeyes, instead pinning one safety tight to the line of scrimmage to jam the running game. Iowa can put pressure on this alignment through formation and motion. Iowa can get favorable matchups between safeties Henry and Valai. Henry is a former corner with range and cover skills. Valai is a tough run-stopper. If Iowa can get them out of their comfort level, it can have a chance to take advantage. Johnson-Koulianos and McNutt ran their games to near perfection last week at Michigan. McNutt ran underneath and cleared out coverage for DJK to get open deep. Expect Wisconsin to be much, much more disciplined.
The Hawkeyes will obviously need to locate Watt in passing situations. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren moves Watt around, searching basically for where he can do the most damage. Where will that be against the Hawkeyes? Left tackle Riley Reiff has shown he can hold up. Zusevics has been sound. Against OSU, Watt played on the edges. Could they line up him inside against the Hawkeyes? However it goes, the Hawkeyes need a protection plan that will likely take receivers out of routes.
When Wisconsin has the ball
The secret to the Badgers’ effort against Ohio State? No secret. Wisconsin has a big offensive line and a pair of running backs that a lot of Big Ten champions seem to have these days.
Wisconsin’s offensive line simply beat the living daylights out of the Buckeyes’ front seven. The Badgers did it every way possible. Double team and move on to the second level? Check. Straight up man, check. Seal and create lanes for Ron Dayne, or wait, P.J. Hill, no, no, oh yeah, John Clay? Check.
The physical manhandling clearly knocked the wind out of the Buckeyes. It was pinata time. The psychological effects of simply being knocked off the ball over and over took root and Ohio State’s front seven was simply hanging on for dear life at a lot of points, especially during the Badgers’ 21-0 burst, which included two Clay TD runs. The victory up front was such a knockout it had Columbus press wondering if the OSU D-line, which includes solid NFL prospects Cam Heyward and Dexter Larimore, was overrated.
It wasn’t just heralded left tackle Gabe Carimi (6-7, 327), either. On their second play from scrimmage, the Badgers ran a jet sweep off sophomore right tackle Ricky Wagner’s (6-6, 322) right shoulder. Wagner pancaked DL Nathan Williams and Clay made it a second-and-short. Next play, guard John Moffitt (6-5, 323) pulled through the hole on a dive and got Larimore on the ground. Clay, a 260-pounder who’s No. 2 in the Big Ten in rushing with 113.7 yards a game, leads the Big Ten with rushed for a first down. Later on the drive, center Peter Konz (6-5, 313) sealed Konz for another big Clay run. Finally on Clay’s 14-yard TD and the Badgers’ 14-0 lead, Carimi shaded three over-pursuing Buckeyes and Clay took a full head of steam into the end zone untouched.
It if were boxing, it would’ve been a technical knockout.
All week, the Hawkeyes talked technique and quickness. That’s their best chance here. Iowa’s D-tackles Karl Klug, Christian Ballard and Mike Daniels can win their share of battles with quick hands and feet. The Badgers can throw punches, but if it gets athletic, Wisconsin could have trouble getting into blocks and sealing gaps. On the edge, DEs Adrian Clayborn and Broderick Binns have the speed and strength to hold up.
The Hawkeyes know what’s coming with Clay. They know they need to keep his feet guessing and muddy his vision. True freshman James White (80 yards a game) counters Clay’s power with speed and quickness. Iowa will need to be hyper aware of cutback lanes when White carries. The Badger O-line herded OSU on a few zones plays and created giant cutback opportunities for White.
Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien has the ability to unleash a quick passing game that pretty much nullified Iowa’s pass rush at Arizona. The Badgers showed enough of that last week, with WR Nick Toon being the target there, to keep Ohio State from crowding the line of scrimmage. If Tolzien is successful with this, he won’t have to attack a secondary that won’t be out of position with veteran safeties Brett Greenwood and Tyler Sash.
Tolzien can also rely on tight end Lance Kendricks to keep Iowa’s linebackers and safeties honest. Kendricks, a 6-4, 241-pound senior, already has 25 catches for 391 yards and three TDs this season. He can fit into Wisconsin’s power set with three TEs and he can get out in route and do damage.
This isn’t a spread offense. If Iowa can rush four and get pressure, Tolzien’s improvising skills will be tested. The Badgers’ offense doesn’t thrive on improvisation. But that’s a huge “if” for Iowa. First and foremost, the Hawkeyes will have to deal with an O-line that has the ability to simply overrun you. That takes all the thinking out of it.
On the first breathe against Ohio State, UW return specialists David Gilreath took a few steps right and then jetted up a seam to the left. He took it 97 yards and the Badgers had a 7-0 lead 12 seconds into their game against No. 1. Gilreath wasn’t touched. UW coach Bret Bielema coaches special teams, so if the head coach is involved, you know the Badgers emphasize it.
Gilreath now has 2,677 career kickoff return yards, taking over the Big Ten lead for career KO return yards. That is also second-best in the country among active FBS players. His 163 kickoff return yards against OSU were the third-best single-game total in Wisconsin history. Gilreath’s 70 career punt returns are second-most in the nation.
Punter Brad Nortman ranks third in school history (and 19th in the country) with a 42.1 career average. Only six of Nortman’s 23 punts have been returned this season. Dating back to last season, junior kicker Philip Welch has made 17 of his last 20 field goals. For his career, Welch is 45-of-58 (.776), the second-best career FG percentage in school history.
Iowa’s special team units are skewing young, with nine true freshmen involved in one way or another. Ferentz told the Hawkeyes this week that special teams will likely win. The Hawkeyes have improved since the Arizona debacle, but it’s still a “one play at a time” type of deal for Iowa.
True freshman Mike Meyer seems to have taken over field goal duties. He’s only 3 of 4 this season, but probably grew a few inches with the 30-yarder in the fourth quarter at Michigan, basically sealing Iowa’s victory.
Wisconsin’s offense is almost in fool-proof mode. It can be that way with an offensive line that comes with a Richter Scale. Tolzien is a tough leader who’s got the experience and patience to find holes in Iowa’s zone pass defense. Iowa’s defensive line isn’t too bad, either. Robinson has been, perhaps, the MVP of Iowa’s offense through the first half. This is Stanzi’s time and his got the weapons to leave a mark in DJK and McNutt.
Iowa 21, Wisconsin 2o