IOWA CITY – November Hawkeyes are typically the best Hawkeyes. Iowa started the month off with a 31-point dusting of AP No. 6 Ohio State, but another No.6 test looms ahead.
Camp Randall in the destination for the Hawkeyes this weekend as they face off against border-rival Wisconsin for the Heartland Trophy. The Heartland Trophy is the only rivalry trophy the Hawkeyes do not currently posses.
The Badgers hope to have better luck against Iowa than did the Buckeyes. Wisconsin sits atop the Big Ten West standings without a blemish on their schedule (9-0, 6-0). Despite the perfect record, Wisconsin is still on the outside looking in, stalled at No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings.
Paul Chryst continues to impress at his alma mater, posting a 30-6 overall mark and a 19-4 Big Ten record in his third season. For the second time in as many seasons, he has his Badgers eyeing a Big Ten West Division title.
The road team has won each of the last six gams in the series. Since the conference was divided into East and West divisions, the winner of the Heartland Trophy game has represented the West in the Big Ten Title Game (Wisconsin 2014, 2016; Iowa 2015).
Who are the playmakers that have Wisconsin at 9-0? Here are a few to watch Saturday when the Badgers and Hawkeyes face off at 2:30pm CST on ABC:
Sophomore Alex Hornibrook leads the stout Badgers passing offense that ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring (36.1 ppg) and total offense (438.8 ypg).
Hornibrook ranks ninth among Power Five quarterbacks with a pass efficiency rating (PER) of 158.3, having completed 64.4 percent of his passes this season. The only Big Ten quarterback with a better PER is J.T. Barrett, whom the Hawkeyes intercepted four times last Saturday.
Hornibrook has tossed out 15 touchdown passes this season. In the red zone, he rarely misses his mark.
His PER in the red zone is 271.9, the best of any Power Five quarterback with at least 15 attempts. Hornibrook is 19-for-17 for 200 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just one interception inside the opponent’s 20 this season.
The lefty also owns the nation’s best winning streak as a starting quarterback. The Badgers have won each of Hornibrook’s last 15 starts, dating back to October 22, 2016.
Hornibrook and the Badgers have one of the most productive offenses in the conference, but they’ll be shorthanded Saturday. Leading receiver Quintez Cephus is out for the game. He leads the team in catches (30), yards (501), touchdowns (six), and yards per game (55.7).
Well ‘Taylor’-ed Back
We produce one of these previews every week. It seems that every week there is a running back highlighted.
Sorry, this week is no different. That’s Big Ten football.
In fact, Wisconsin may just have the best running back of the bunch (and no, we didn’t forget about Saquon Barkley).
True freshman Jonathan Taylor has been running all over the rest of the Big Ten this season. Taylor leads the conference and is ranked fourth nationally with 152.0 yards per game. He also has the most rushing touchdowns of any conference freshman with 12.
Taylor’s 5’11, 214-lb frame carries a combination of power and speed. He’s proven many times this year that he is a tough guy to bring down. Taylor has eclipsed 200 yards in a game three times this season, the sixth FBS freshman to do that since 2000.
Taylor has rushed for 100+ yards three other times this season, including last week at Indiana when he rushed 29 times for 187 yards and a touchdown.
When he has the ball, Taylor is one of the most efficient rushers in the nation. Taylor ranks fourth nationally with 7.2 yards per carry. The only Badger to average 7.0+ yards per carry in a season is Melvin Gordon, who averaged 7.8 yards per carry in 2013 and 7.5 yards per carry in 2014.
The freshman back is on his way to being one of the best running backs in Wisconsin history, and maybe the best back in the whole country. Running behind a Joe Moore Award mid-season honor roll offensive line, Taylor is going to be a big hassle for the Hawkeyes Saturday.
The Dam Defense
Wisconsin, much like Iowa, likes to win games on the defensive side of the ball. This undefeated season exemplifies that.
Under Jim Leonhard, their third defensive coordinator in as many years, the Badgers are tied for fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 13.3 points per game.
The Badgers’ 3-4 style defense also ranks fifth in the nation in total defense (267.8 ypg), fourth in rushing defense (87.9 ypg), and 18th in passing defense (180.0 ypg).
Wisconsin utilizes the “bend, don’t break” philosophy as well as any team in college football. The Badgers lead the nation in touchdown percentage in the red zone, allowing touchdowns in just 26.6 percent of drives that reach their 20-yard line.
Eleven opponent drives have started inside Badger territory this season, and just three of those drives finished in the end zone.
Up front, linebackers Garrett Dooley and Ryan Connelly lead the charge. Dooley ranks second in the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, and Connelly leads the team with 46 total tackles. The front seven averages 7.0 tackles for loss per game.
Wisconsin’s passing defense is as good as any team in the country as well. Nationally, the Badgers are 11th in opponent completion percentage (51.8 percent), tied for fifth in opponent’s yards per attempt (5.7), tied for 12th in passing touchdowns allowed (eight), and tied for fourth in interceptions (14).
Cornerback Nick Nelson leads the secondary. Nelson leads the nation with 18 pass breakups, leading Iowa corner back Josh Jackson (15).
Nelson’s 18 passes defended ranks second in the nation, trailing only Jackson’s 20 (15 breakups and five interceptions).
In total, the Badgers and Hawkeyes are tied for the nation’s lead with 50 pass breakups each this season.
Defense wins games in this smash-mouth, Big Ten rivalry series. In the three of the last four meetings, the losing team has been held to single-digit points. This week should be no different, and it should surprise no one if this game resembles the 10-6 final from 2015.