Slumping Badgers to face Iowa
The Badgers went from the top 10 to the Big Ten cellar in three short weeks — a stretch capped by a humiliating home loss to No. 3 Penn State — and fans that were ready to pack their sunscreen for another January bowl trip are now wondering what in the heck is going on.
Sound familiar, Iowa?
The rival Hawkeyes can sympathize with Wisconsin's plight, having seen their hopes of a long run among the Big Ten's elite squandered by years of unmet expectations. That's of little help to the Badgers (3-3, 0-3), who enter Saturday's game at rival Iowa (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) needing to win in the worst way possible.
Wisconsin became the first team in Big Ten history to open conference play by facing Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State — and it didn't go well. But the Badgers say they're focused on putting their woeful conference start behind them and salvaging what's left of their season.
"You can go two ways. You can look back and dwell on all that stuff, or you could go forward. Really, we don't have a choice. We have to move forward. There's still a lot of season left," Wisconsin offensive lineman John Moffitt said.
Wisconsin's response to its losing streak might include a new starting quarterback. Senior starter Allan Evridge's underwhelming season hit rock bottom against the Nittany Lions, as he completed just 2-of-10 passes before being replaced by junior Dustin Sherer.
Sherer threw 115 yards in a lost cause. Bielema left the door open for a switch by pairing both on the top line of this week's depth chart.
Iowa knows a thing or two about quarterback shuffles as well, having spent four games switching back and forth between Jake Christensen and Ricky Stanzi. The coaching staff handed the keys to the offense to Stanzi for the start of the Big Ten season, and the Hawkeyes finally broke through with a 45-9 win at Indiana last week that snapped a three-game losing streak.
Stanzi had two critical fumbles in a 16-13 loss at No. 20 Michigan State. But he was turnover-free against the Hoosiers, throwing for 184 yards and two touchdowns as the Hawkeyes protected the football, established themselves in the trenches and wore down Indiana in the second half.
"We hadn't done a good job of taking care of the football and it made a world of difference," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "Hopefully we've learned a little bit about the value of taking better care of the ball."
Stylistically, Iowa and Wisconsin are nearly mirror images of each other. The Hawkeyes would like nothing more than to control the game with its defense, at last count fifth in the nation at 10.9 points per game, and pound away behind running back Shonn Greene, who has emerged as one of the nation's top running backs.
Greene is the only back in the nation with seven straight 100-yard games, and he's doing it on 6.2 yards per carry.
The Badgers will counter with the duo of P.J. Hill and John Clay, who have helped them average 200 yards rushing per game. Wisconsin will have its hands full trying to reach that total against Iowa and its outstanding defensive tackle tandem of Mitch King and Matt Kroul, who have keyed a defense that's holding teams to 3.1 yards per carry.
"It gets down to playing good team defense once again, because obviously these guys are very strong, very experienced, very big up front. Both of their running backs can probably be playing center or guard if they played for us, they're so big," Ferentz said.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema lost just five games in his first two seasons with the Badgers, but he's been in tight spots before. Bielema was an assistant at Kansas State in 2003, when the Wildcats dropped three straight in the middle of the season and fell out of the Top 25.
Kansas State rallied with six straight wins to reach the Big 12 title game, where they stunned No. 1 Oklahoma 35-7 to reach the Fiesta Bowl. Bielema relayed that story to the team this week, emphasizing the "one week at a time" mentality he believes can help the Badgers bounce back.
"Tough times bring about tough people, and tough people are the ones that last," Bielema said.
BY THE NUMBERS
Wisconsin (3-3, 0-3 Big 10) at Iowa (4-3, 1-2), 11:00 a.m. (Big Ten Network)
Line: Iowa by 3 1/2
Series Record: Wisconsin leads 41-40-2
Last Meeting: 2007 (Wisconsin 17, Iowa 13)
What's at Stake:
If Wisconsin is going to turn its season around, Saturday is a good time to start. The Badgers need to wash the taste of a 41-point home loss to No. 3 Penn State out of their mouths and get on track in order to secure a quality bowl bid. For Iowa, a victory would bring them to .500 in the Big Ten and bolster hopes of a quality bowl bid of its own.
Wisconsin QBs vs. Iowa's secondary. The Badgers haven't said whether Allan Evridge or Dustin Sherer will start, but whoever they pick will have to make plays in the passing game because Iowa is allowing just 98.3 yards rushing per game.
Players to watch:
Wisconsin: RB P.J. Hill. He hasn't cracked 100 yards in three straight games, and backup John Clay has seen his playing time increase. But the Badgers could use a return to form from Hill against Iowa's imposing defensive line.
Iowa: RB Shonn Greene. He's already outperformed Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy and Michigan State's Javon Ringer in head-to-head matchups and is the only back in the nation with 100 yards rushing in his first seven games.
Facts & Figures:
The Wisconsin-Iowa series has been the closest of any in the Big Ten, with the Badgers holding a one-game advantage...Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema was a co-captain at Iowa in 1991 and coached there from 1994-2001...Iowa WR Andy Brodell tore a hamstring last season at Wisconsin and missed the rest of the year. He's recovered nicely, leading the Hawkeyes with 24 receptions and an 11.8-yard average on punt returns.