The games grow more important each week for No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0), and no game is bigger this season than the one the Badgers will play against No. 20 Iowa (6-3, 3-3) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT in Camp Randall Stadium.
Iowa is coming off a 55-24 drubbing of Ohio State that vaulted the Hawkeyes to No. 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings. That’s good news for Wisconsin, which defeated Indiana 45-17 last Saturday. The Badgers need to boost their strength of schedule, and the Hawkeyes represent a great opportunity to do so.
Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Try to finish the game without an interception
The topic of limiting turnovers shows up seemingly every week in these keys, but there’s a reason for that: It keeps happening. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown at least one interception in all six of Wisconsin’s Big Ten games so far. Hornibrook’s 9 interceptions are the third-most in the league and tied for the 11th-most in the FBS. He has done some excellent work at quarterback this season with pass efficiency rating and completion percentage. But the interceptions remain the biggest stain on an otherwise solid season.
Iowa’s secondary will test Hornibrook as much as any unit he has faced. The Hawkeyes have recorded 13 interceptions this season, which is second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin’s 14. Iowa defensive back Josh Jackson leads the Big Ten with 5 interceptions. He picked off Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett 3 times last week.
“You watch Alex and his resiliency and just his ability to bounce back to the next series and make plays,” Badgers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “We talk a lot about living in the moment. You can’t carry something forward from a series ago or a play ago. And I can’t worry too much about what’s going to happen on the next series or the next play. I’ve got to lock into what I’m doing right then and there. He’s done a great job of that.”
2. Find more playmakers in the passing game
Wisconsin won’t have the services of No. 1 wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who suffered a right leg injury last week against Indiana. Cephus has 30 catches for 501 yards and 6 touchdowns, and no single player can replace his production. Tight end Troy Fumagalli may have to take on an even bigger load in the passing game because of his big body and catching ability. But it will be up to A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor to help fill the void. They’re the only three healthy scholarship players that will be in the game. Together, they have combined for 28 catches this season for 481 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Rudolph said this week that Wisconsin might have to rely on more sets with multiple tight ends, as well as production from running backs and fullbacks. Tight ends Kyle Penniston and Zander Neuville are fully capable of helping the offense through the air. Fullback Alec Ingold has great versatility and caught an 18-yard touchdown pass last week against Indiana.
Given where Wisconsin stands with so many injuries to its wide receiver group, it won’t be a surprise to see Iowa load the box and make the Badgers beat them through the air. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor has been simply phenomenal. He ranks No. 4 nationally with 152 rushing yards per game and leads the Big Ten with 12 rushing touchdowns. If Iowa can take Taylor away, the Badgers will have to find alternative ways to move the ball.
3. Make Iowa QB Nate Stanley uncomfortable
Nate Stanley was simply terrific last week during Iowa’s 55-24 victory against Ohio State. He shredded Ohio State for 226 yards passing with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. Stanley has done a tremendous job of taking care of the football this season. He has thrown 22 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. But Stanley is not a particularly mobile quarterback, and his completion percentage (58.3) ranks on the low end among Big Ten signal callers. If the Badgers’ defense can make him uncomfortable in the pocket, they could have a big day. Stanley has minus-27 yards rushing this season from taking sacks.
This season, Wisconsin has 31 sacks, which ranks fifth in the nation. The only teams ahead of Wisconsin are USC, Clemson, Michigan and Texas A&M. The Badgers’ 3.4 sacks per game are a full sack better than the 2016 mark of 2.4. The last time Wisconsin averaged at least 3 sacks per game came back in 1998. This defense has proven to be a pretty special unit, and the contributions have come from everywhere. Outside linebacker Garret Dooley has 6 1/2 sacks, defensive end Alec James has 5 1/2 sacks and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel 5. Iowa’s offensive line will be a load to handle, but the Badgers have the personnel to make life tough for Stanley.
This should be the most difficult game Wisconsin has played this season. Iowa and Wisconsin share such similar philosophies, and players say every year that both sides know what the other will do on the field. Wisconsin has put itself in position to earn serious consideration for the College Football Playoff with a victory, which would move the Badgers to 10-0 for the first time in school history. These Badgers have done a great job of focusing strictly on the task at hand each week, which has prevented them from being overwhelmed by the moment. The next big moment is Saturday, and Wisconsin will be ready. Wisconsin 21, Iowa 17.
Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10
Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14
Game 3 prediction: Wisconsin 27, BYU 10; Game 3 score: Wisconsin 40, BYU 6
Game 4 prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13; Game 4 score: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 24
Game 5 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17; Game 5 score: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17
Game 6 prediction: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 14; Game 6 score: Wisconsin 17, Purdue 9
Game 7 prediction: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 17; Game 7 score: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 13
Game 8 prediction: Wisconsin 42, Illinois 10; Game 8 score: Wisconsin 24, Illinois 10
Game 9 prediction: Wisconsin 35, Indiana 17; Game 9 score: Wisconsin 45, Indiana 17
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