In each of the last four years, when the Big Ten moved to geographically divided divisions, the winner of the Wisconsin vs. Iowa matchup has represented the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship Game. This year appears no different.
The Badgers were heavy favorites to win the Big Ten West in 2018 as they returned nearly their entire offense from a team that was 13-1 last year. However, they have gotten off to a slow start this season and lost to BYU last week, 24-21, marking their first non-conference home loss since 2003.
The Badger offense will need to play much better all-around if they hope to beat a stingy Iowa defense. Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown for 595 yards through three games with three touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s been under a lot more pressure than what was expected as the Badgers returned all five offensive lineman from a year ago, including three All-Americans. Wisconsin also leans on those offensive lineman to lead the way for Heisman-hopeful sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor has lead the way for the Badgers this year, racking up 515 yards on 77 carries and five scores, but was bottled up by the BYU defense, held to 117 yards on 26 carries.
Defensively, the Badgers returned only four starters from 2017, but was one of the best defensive units in the country. The defensive line in particular is young, with only two returning letterwinners from a season ago. Wisconsin is relying on senior middle linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly to set the Badger’s front seven, while senior safety D’Cota Dixon is the only returning player with starting experience in the secondary. One bright spot for the Wisconsin defense early in the year has been the play of redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson. The Detroit native is second on the team in tackles (16) and tackles for loss (2.5), while adding an interception and three pass breakups to his tally.
Iowa has dominated the early portion of the their schedule, outscoring opponents 84-24. They appear to be on their way down the road as a typical Kirk Ferentz-led team, ferocious on defense with a ball-control offense.
Junior quarterback Nate Stanley is in his second full season of starting for Iowa, and he returned two of his top three receivers, along with his all-world junior tight end Noah Fant. Fant and fellow tight end, sophomore T.J. Hockenson, are tied for the team-lead in receptions with 12 through three games and have combined for 253 of Stanley’s 583 passing yards. On the ground, the Hawkeyes have a trio of sophomores who all carry the ball effectively. Ivory Kelly-Martin is their most talented runner, but he has been nursing an injury and missed the last two games.
On defense, the Hawkeyes are doing what they’ve always done: stop the run and limit big plays in the passing game. Iowa has been effective at getting to the quarterback so far this year, racking up 12 sacks through three games. They’ve also been stout against the run, holding their last two opponents to a total of 25 rushing yards.
This will be defensive battle as both teams pride themselves on controlling the clock and tough defense. Three of the last four times these teams have met, the game was decided by eight or less points. Wisconsin might have a little extra juice as the Badgers try to get back on track, but the Hawkeyes are always tough in Kinnick Stadium, especially at night. Iowa is 10-2 at home at night dating back to 2007.