Wisconsin disappointed many last weekend when it lost a non-conference home game for the first time since 2003. The Badgers fell to BYU 24-21 despite closing as 21-to-22.5-point favorites, depending on the gambling service one prefers.
That loss may have surprised many, but it was in tune with how the Badgers have looked for the better part of the young season, which is underwhelming. Wisconsin was ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and has now fallen down to No. 18 after the loss to BYU.
Thing only get tougher from here on out for Wisconsin, and that begins on Saturday night in Iowa City. The Badgers are tasked with having to head into Kinnick Stadium – where national title dreams have gone to die in each of the past two seasons – and rebound from the early season loss.
Weather the early storm
As mentioned above, Kinnick Stadium has been a tough place to play for opponents the past few years. Last season, Ohio State traveled there ranked No. 3 in the country with a 7-1 record and clinging to hopes of making the playoffs. The Buckeyes left Iowa after a 55-24 shellacking at the hands of the Hawkeyes. In 2016 the Michigan Wolverines were ranked No. 2 in the country, 9-0 and trending towards a playoff appearance before a 14-13 loss under the lights at Kinnick.
This game has been circled on the schedule of Iowa all summer long. Like the Badgers, Iowa didn’t have a very difficult non-conference slate. Unlike the Badgers, Iowa was able to get through it unscathed.
This game being played at night makes things even tougher for Wisconsin. After a road schedule that didn’t have many tough environments last season, this will be the first true test for this program in a while, and one that many of the players haven’t seen.
No one on the roster has played at Iowa under the lights, but safety Scott Nelson was at the 2016 upset the Hawkeyes pulled over Michigan on an official visit. That’s as close as Wisconsin comes to having experience in this exact environment.
“It’s similar to here,” said Nelson of the atmosphere in Iowa City. “The hype around it builds up throughout the day. Everybody looks forward to it, their fans are crazy. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be fun.”
Get the offense in gear
Yes, this team rushed for a Paul Chryst era high 417 yards against New Mexico two weeks ago. No, they haven’t been impressive in the least bit. Yes, those two things can absolutely co-exist.
With expectations as high as they were prior to the season, the best word to describe Wisconsin’s offense is underwhelming. This group was supposed to be able to light up the scoreboard and it hasn’t happened as expected. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been average, running back Jonathan Taylor has put up solid numbers, but his impact hasn’t felt as strong as it did last year, and the offensive line hasn’t lived up to expectations either.
The world expected more out of the Badgers’ offense this year. That group hasn’t been able to capture the magic that was on display in the 2017 Orange Bowl win over Miami despite bringing back 10 of 11 starters from that night. If there’s ever a night where this team needs to find that magic, this is probably it.
Attempt to replicate last year’s defensive effort
Mentioned above was the fact that Iowa dropped 55 points on then title contender Ohio State in 2017. What wasn’t mentioned is the fact that Wisconsin’s defense made life extremely difficult for the Hawkeyes seven days later.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley through for 226 yards and five touchdowns against the Buckeyes in that blowout victory. The very next week he finished 8-of-24 for 41 yards and an interception against the Badgers.
In Wisconsin’s 38-14 win, Iowa was held to just 66 yards of total offense on the day. The defense for the Badgers was absolutely suffocating, and that may be putting it lightly.
“I felt like we dominated the game as a defensive unit, honestly,” safety D’Cota Dixon said this week when asked to reflect on last year’s game. “Probably was our best showcase as a defensive performance, I think, that we’ve probably had here in a long time.”
It’s a stretch to think that effort will be replicated, but there can be some things learned from last year in an attempt to limit what Iowa can do offensively.