Iowa must win Heartland Trophy rushing challenge to upset Wisconsin

IOWA CITY, Iowa — There wasn’t too much for Iowa offensive line coach Tim Polasek to pick apart in film review this week.

For four quarters last Saturday, the Hawkeyes pushed around and drove back the Ohio State defensive front, paving the way for a 243-yard rushing day en route to a 55-24 victory.

So instead of critiquing his unit’s play, Polasek offered a challenge.

The offensive line must clear out rushing lanes like this for the rest of the reason, he told his players. It wasn’t a request. It’s a requirement.

Really, this week, it’s a necessity.

Iowa and Wisconsin always comes down to play up front, and if the 20th-ranked Hawkeyes can’t repeat their run game execution against the eighth-ranked Badgers, they won’t have a chance at picking up a second straight Top 10 victory on Saturday.

“We have to,” center James Daniels said, “especially against Wisconsin’s defense because they give up like 90 yards a game rushing. It’s some crazy stat like that and if we just rush for 90 yards I don’t think we will win the game. So we need to be able to gash it in the run game.”

Running to victory

Daniels was being generous. Wisconsin allows only 87.78 yards per game. It’s fourth nationally.

The Badgers are like running into a brick wall. There is no give. But the same was said about Ohio State last week before its rush defense crumbled to the ground.

It’s on the Hawkeyes to find a way to gain more yards than the typical Wisconsin opponent because the outcome of the contest hangs in the balance.

Since the rivals started playing again every year in 2013, the winner has been the team with more rushing yards.

Team Avg. Att. Avg. Rush Yards Avg. Yards/Carry
Winner 43.75 198.75 4.5
Loser 30.25 95.0 3.1

Really, this is no surprise. Everyone knows what is coming. Yes, there may be the occasional lonesome polecat sort of wrinkle, but it’s two teams who want to make it a bar-room brawl.

Each squad thrives in a physical contest, seeks to control the line of scrimmage and will hand it off as much as they can.

“They are basically our twin when it comes to that,” fullback Drake Kulick said. “They play smashmouth football on both sides of the ball. They are not going to hold punches. It doesn’t matter how many times we punch them in the face. They are going to come back and hit you the same amount of times. So it’s going to be a knockdown, drag-out type of fight.”

Good O-line play, good games will follow

Entering this rivalry game with an inconsistent run game is a death sentence. That’s why Iowa’s offensive resurgence against the Buckeyes is so important.

Yes, quarterback Nate Stanley is a revelation and Iowa is throwing it downfield more than in years past, but Iowa is still Iowa. The run game is the engine. When it gets going the offense is at its best — as the Ohio State game proved.

“It started up front,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “If they are having a good day, then the whole team gets to have a good day.”

It might as well be the motto for both teams.

And Wisconsin’s offensive line, led by All-America candidate David Edwards, has ensured plenty of great Saturdays this fall. The Badgers are undefeated and No. 16 nationally in rushing yards, averaging 244.78 per game.

Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor is in the midst of a season of All-Big Ten caliber, rushing for 1,368 yards and 12 touchdowns. It’s due, in part, to the men opening holes for him.

“It’s the same story every year,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They’re just really well-coached. Obviously, they’re huge. I don’t know, I haven’t researched it, but I’m guessing they’re probably bigger than most NFL lines.

“They’re a really big group. They’re physical. They know what they do. They’ve got a system that’s in place and been in place there, and they know what they do, they know what they are, and they do it very, very well.”

Who runs it best?

Both sides know the drill. Iowa will use the inside and outside zone to move the chains. Wisconsin will try to maul its way into the end zone with its mountain of a line. The one left standing will be lifting the Heartland Trophy when it’s over.

For the Hawkeyes, this game seemingly comes down to this. Will the offensive line meet Polasek’s challenge? Can the run game repeat its Ohio State performance?

“If I was a fortune teller I would have a whole lot of money on the game,” Kulick said. “Obviously, I can’t tell you what will happen [with the offense], but I will tell you we are focused. We will have a great week of preparation and we will go in there hungry.

“They have our trophy and we don’t plan on leaving there without it. We are going to go in there and give them a 60-minute fight and the best man is going to win.”

The post Iowa must win Heartland Trophy rushing challenge to upset Wisconsin appeared first on Land of 10.

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