When it comes to the University of Wisconsin’s sputtering offense, there is no rest for the weary.
Well, technically that’s not correct. The 16th-ranked Badgers did have a bye week to relax and reflect prior to Saturday’s Big Ten Conference West Division elimination game against 18th-ranked Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium.
Other than that, however, UW’s offense faces a familiar task. Another game, another great defense, which is a problem for an offense trying to fix itself on the fly.
After opening the Big Ten season with 487 yards and 35 points against Michigan, UW’s offense bogged down against some of the nation’s toughest defenses. Including Michigan, which is ranked seventh nationally in total defense, and Iowa, which is ranked one spot higher than Michigan, UW will face current top-20 defenses in four of its first six Big Ten games. And Northwestern’s defense, which is 36th, is also in the top 30 percent.
With the running game slowed and the passing game unable to consistently compensate, the Badgers have dropped their past two games after a 6-0 start. Both Illinois, which has the 67th-ranked defense, and Ohio State, which is ranked second, used quickness, penetration and plenty of bodies near the line of scrimmage to limit UW tailback Jonathan Taylor. They dared UW to throw, pressured quarterback Jack Coan and the Badgers couldn’t get enough done in the passing game to win.
Now along comes Iowa, which plays a less aggressive style than UW has seen but looks like every Iowa defense for the past 20 years — physical, hard-nosed and well-coached. In addition to ranking sixth in total defense, the Hawkeyes are third in scoring defense, eighth in rushing defense and 13th in pass efficiency defense. Those aren’t quite Ohio State numbers, but they’re not far off.
If the Badgers are going to win their final four games and have a chance to make the Big Ten title game, they’ll have to show they used the bye week for more than resting up. They’ve got to change some things on offense because what they’re doing isn’t working consistently against elite Big Ten defenses — like Iowa’s.
From the sound of things, balancing the offense was the buzzword the past two weeks.
“You want to be balanced; you want to utilize your personnel to your best,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Regardless of if you had a bye week or not, you think, ‘OK, what’s working well? What’s not? If we’re making changes, what changes do you make? Is it personnel? Is it player for player? Is is personnel groups, with different packages taking the field? Is it a different concept? Is it just cleaning up something that you’re doing where you can get better at it if you rep it in practice?’ You beat yourself up in about a million different ways. But the idea is you want to help this group be at their best, and we’re at our best I think when we’re balanced, when we’re playing off the run with the pass, when we’re playing off the pass with the run. We need to get back to that.”
That doesn’t mean the Badgers need a 50-50 split between the run and pass. Instead, they need to make the run and the pass work in concert.
UW is passing on 37 percent of its snaps, which is in the same ballpark as the previous three seasons. The problem is Big Ten defenses have become even more daring in committing players to stop the run and UW isn’t making them pay by passing effectively.
One issue is inconsistency on the line, which has started four players at right guard and three at left guard as the coaches search for players to claim those spots. Another issue is opponents are stoning the run on early downs and UW is finding itself in more third-and-longs than usual.
The most frustrating part is that UW hasn’t been able to take advantage of stacked boxes to move through the air despite having a quarterback who has thrown only two interceptions and the deepest group of proven wide receivers anyone can remember. The best way to balance out the offense is to make more of a commitment to getting the ball to that quartet of wide receivers.
“I think we can be more balanced,” center Tyler Biadasz said. “I think we can have a better run game and I think we can get better at the pass game, too. Just putting us in better situations overall I think is the big key to that.”
Still, UW coach Paul Chryst and his assistants are walking a fine line as they try to better utilize the receiving corps without reducing Taylor’s touches and home run potential.
The running game has already been affected by UW’s increased use of sets with three wide receivers. Five years ago, UW used three wides only in passing situations. Last year, it became the most-used position group. This year, UW has used three wides even more and it hasn’t run the ball as well as it has in the past, when it often had two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback on the field.
One reason for being more spread out on offense is the talent at wide receiver. But a bigger reason is that tight end has been thinned by injury, which has hindered UW from covering both edges cleanly in the run game while still maintaining a passing threat.
Clearly, there is much push and pull as UW tries to find the right offensive mix. Opposing defenses have something to say about that, too. Especially in the Big Ten.
<&rdpStrong>No. 16 Badgers vs. No. 18 Iowa: Who has the edge?</&rdpStrong>
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
Jonathan Taylor will be itching to get things going against the Hawkeyes after his lowest output of the season against Ohio State and a bye week. The offense has struggled in recent weeks without the junior tailback’s big plays, and the sledding doesn’t get easier against the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s run defense is the eighth-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing 87.8 yards per game.
UW quarterback Jack Coan (above) was under siege against the Buckeyes, as he was sacked five times. That pressure effectively negated what the Badgers could do through the air. He should have more time against Iowa, which isn’t as talented up front as OSU, but UW must protect Coan better to have a chance to move the ball.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is a premier pass-rusher, and will be a good test for the offensive line. Senior linebacker Kristian Welch, an Iola native, leads the Hawkeyes with 47 tackles, but won’t play due to injury, per Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia has two interceptions and six pass breakups this year, leading the 12th-best pass defense (178.1 ypg allowed) in the country.
EDGE | PUSH
WHEN THE HAWKEYES HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Nate Stanley (above), a Menomonie product, is not having a great year for Iowa, completing 60.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. However, he is generating plays with his mobility, as Iowa utilizes his athleticism with bootlegs and designed roll-outs, and his TD total would be better if the Hawkeyes threw it more inside the 10 instead of leaning on the ground game. Losing two tight ends to the NFL — first-round picks T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — also hurt Stanley’s production.
The Hawkeyes, who run most plays out of the I-formation, are averaging 24.4 points per game. A trio of running backs — Mekhi Sargent (98 carries, 443 yards, 4 TDs), Toren Young (62-357-1) and Tyler Goodson (64-316-1) — carry the load in the backfield. Iowa’s run game presents a challenge to the Badgers, who need to tackle better than what they showed against Illinois and Ohio State to avoid big plays from biting them again.
UW should be able to use its base 3-4 defense more often against the Hawkeyes, which should help free up linebackers in the run game.
EDGE | UW
Alexander Smith’s blocked punt against Ohio State was UW’s first since 2014, and a highlight for a special teams unit that has struggled at times.
Aron Cruickshank (above) has only had nine kick returns this season, but he’s popped two of them of 44 and 38 yards.
Iowa’s Keith Duncan is 19 of 22 on field goals this season, including 10 of 12 from 40-49 yards. In a game that shapes up to be a tight one, Duncan’s accuracy is a big factor in converting drives into points — a luxury UW can’t always count on with Collin Larsh, who is 6 of 10 on field goals this year.
EDGE | IOWA
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (above) is the longest-tenured coach in FBS, and is the only coach who was hired by his school in the 1990s. He and UW coach Paul Chryst have similar styles on the field and in constructing a coaching staff — continuity matters.
UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has worked with Chryst for more than a decade, while Ferentz has longtime assistant Phil Parker as defensive coordinator for an eighth season and his son, Brian, as the offensive coordinator. Brian Ferentz played at Iowa before a career in the NFL as a player and a coach. Both teams are coming off of bye weeks, giving both coaching staffs time to correct mistakes and make adjustments.
EDGE | PUSH
Both teams are desperate for a win. Both sit at 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Hawkeyes and Badgers are very much in the running for a Big Ten West Division title, but would need to win out to give themselves a chance to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game.
UW is unbeaten at home this year, and is playing its first home game since Oct. 12. With their chances at a conference championship hanging in the balance, expect UW to ride the home-crowd energy.
EDGE | UW
STATE JOURNAL PICK
There’s more talent on the Badgers’ sideline — the results of the past two weeks don’t change that.
But finding a way to utilize that talent is going to be key, and two weeks to prepare should be more than enough time for Chryst and Rudolph to get things together offensively.
Jim Leonhard won’t allow Iowa’s simple yet effective offense to create big plays, and UW keeps the Heartland Trophy.
BADGERS 20, HAWKEYES 10
THE NUMBER (UW)
5: Turnovers in the last two games for the Badgers after giving the ball away four times in the first six games
THE NUMBER (IOWA)
36: Total penalties for the Hawkeyes, whose 34.9 yards per game lost from penalties is fifth-fewest in the nation
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Rushing offense: UW is down to 25th in the nation at 216.4 rushing yards per game, and coming off its first game in which it failed to rush for 100 yards since 2017
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Sacks allowed: Iowa has given up 18 sacks this season (2.25 per game), so UW’s improved rush should be able to put pressure on Stanley
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