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Ethan Hemer and the Badgers are looking forward to facing an old school offense like Iowa's.
'Born to play Iowa'
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The smiles worn by the defensive linemen, linebackers and even some of the defensive backs for the University of Wisconsin tell the story. After seven games of mostly spread offenses, the Badgers are welcoming a return to the old days of smash-mouth football as they prepare for a trip to Iowa this Saturday to take on the Hawkeyes.
“I love this style of game,” safety Dezmen Southward said. “No deception. I know where you’re going. You know where I’m going. Lets just meet there and see how it goes. It’s just that sort of game. They’ll still throw some play-action passes and things of that nature but for the most part it’s a tough, physical, old school Big Ten game.”
There are only a few schools (Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State) left that truly play the style of football the conference became famous for during the Woody Hayes-era at Ohio State and Bo Schembechler’s time at Michigan. But Barry Alvarez brought it to Wisconsin in the early 90’s and it’s stayed a staple with former coach Bret Bielema and under new coach Gary Andersen. Meanwhile, Hayden Fry handed his program off to Kirk Ferentz in Iowa City with the same message. Play tough physical football in the trenches and take your shots down the field on play-action. While both schools have added more diverse play calls to their offenses over time the overriding theme remains the same.
“I love the way their offense and offensive line plays,” nose guard Beau Allen said of the Hawkeyes. “I think they definitely play hard. They’ve got talented offensive linemen. And they’ve got backs that like to pound the ball, too. It’s a good matchup.”
It’s a matchup that hasn’t taken place since 2010 – an epic game that went back and forth before a late touchdown from Montee Ball and a stop by the Wisconsin defense gave the Badgers a 31-30 win – and the Heartland Trophy.
“I remember an extremely physical offensive line. Probably the best I’ve ever played,” said defensive end Ethan Hemer, who made his first career start and had six tackles in the game. “Those guys had a lot of skill and they were big and fast. I see a lot of those characteristics in this offensive line we’re going to play this weekend.”
While Wisconsin and Iowa share a similar offensive philosophy, they don’t go about it the same way.
“(Iowa runs) more stretch and zone and lead (plays), linebacker Chris Borland said. “Traditionally we’re more a power team, so there (are) little differences like that but at the end of the day it’s just physical, eight men in the box, Big Ten football.”
Which should bode well for Wisconsin – which ranks No. 2 in the conference and No. 4 in the nation at stopping the run, allowing just 87.6 yards per game.
Iowa comes into the game averaging 188.9 yards on the ground but in their last three contests they’ve put up just 96.3 per game. And in those games they averaged just 18.3 points – nearly 10 points below their average for the season. They also went 1-2.
For Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who’s had an extra week to prepare due to a rare second bye week, the Hawkeyes aren’t a difficult group to figure out. He knows what they want to do and how they are going to do it. It’s just a matter of stopping them.
“They don’t do a lot, but what they do, they do very well. There’s not a truer statement with anyone else we’ve played or will play,” Aranda said. “They’re very simple in their run game. They execute.”
The Hawkeyes passing game will challenge Wisconsin, which at times this year has allowed for some big plays down the field. The Badgers have given up 19 plays of 20 or more yards this year, 18 of which have come through the air. And 16 of them have come in three games alone, including five against the Illinois the last time out.
Aranda said the issues have only come in certain situations. He said when it’s third-and-long and they can send different types of pressure after the quarterback the big plays haven’t really been a problem.
“The issues we’ve had have been the play-action shots and the misdirection shots,” Aranda said. “So those are things we’ve been working. They’ve been working hard at it…I’m excited to see what comes of it on Saturday because we’re definitely going to get it. That’s a big part of what they do. Run, run and then throw it up.”
Wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley has been quarterback Jake Rudock’s favorite target with 32 catches, but he’ll also find his tight end – C.J. Fiedrowicz (17 catches and four touchdowns) – especially in third-down situations. The Hawkeyes are converting 49-percent of their third-down opportunities, good for second in the conference. And Aranda believes that has a lot to do with the tight ends.
“The tight end is a pass catching presence,” he said. “He’s so big that if you don’t get hands on him early it’s tough to win late.”
Still, the straightforward nature of the offense should help the Badgers if Borland can’t play or is limited due to the hamstring injury he suffered against Illinois. If the senior isn’t in the game the most likely replacement will be junior Marcus Trotter – who filled in nicely against the Illini, finishing with nine tackles and a fumble recovery. But in that game – where there were a lot of different defensive packages due to the spread offense being run – communication was paramount and without Borland the message didn’t always get delivered.
“The part where (Trotter’s) playing the run and reacting, he played well. When he was pressuring he played well. Where he can improve is the communication part of it. And that’s where it’s been beneficial to have two weeks to be able to get that under control,” Aranda said. “You lose a guy like Chris, not only do you lose the playmaking ability but so much of it is Chris gets everybody lined up. Chris settles things down in terms of communication. He gets everybody on the right page. To be honest you overlook that until you don’t have him in there and you see what it’s like.”
Against Iowa the number of different packages will be far fewer, which should help all of the defenders.
“When I look at our team, the makeup of it, I feel like we can go in right now and play an Iowa or a Wisconsin. I think we’re built for that,” Aranda said. “When (Iowa is) in big (personnel) and they’re in regular personnel, I feel good where we are at. But when they go small, it benefits us to go small as well. There will be some personnel groups there.”
Strategy aside, football is a game that comes down to one-on-one battles and this is a contest where that is even more true – and Aranda likes the guys he’s got.
“With all respect to Iowa,” Aranda said. “How physical they are and how they move people and everything. I feel like we have a lot of guys that were born to play Iowa.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin