Big Ten bruiser: Iowa visits Wisconsin
IOWA CITY — The numbers say one thing.
But it was last week during the media availability with Iowa’s assistant football coaches when someone asked defensive line coach Kelvin Bell and linebackers coach Seth Wallace if the Hawkeyes defense was “elite.”
“No,” Bell said. Wallace agreed, saying there were plenty of things the Hawkeyes could be better at.
Their players agree with the assessment.
Iowa’s defense ranks third nationally in scoring defense (10.1 points allowed per game), sixth in total defense (265.9 yards per game) and eighth in rushing defense (87.8 yards per game).
The scoring average is the best of coach Kirk Ferentz’s 21 seasons at Iowa, and the lowest of any Iowa team since the 1956 Hawkeyes gave up 8.4 points per game. The total defense number is the lowest of any Iowa team since the 1984 team gave up an average of 272.2 yards per game.
Iowa has allowed nine touchdowns in seven games this season. Among Big Ten schools, only Ohio State, with six, has allowed fewer.
“Right now, the best thing we’re doing defensively is we’re playing great team defense,” Ferentz said.
The No. 18 Hawkeyes are coming off a bye week after a 20-0 win at Northwestern. That game was Iowa’s fourth shutout in its last 11 Big Ten games. No other Big Ten team has more than one shutout since the start of the 2018 season.
“I’ve seen the numbers,” cornerback Michael Ojemudia said. “If we clean it up a little bit, we can be that much better. There’s always room for improvement. But the focus is to be the best. You don’t want to be top-five, you want to be number one. If we can clean up things and just be tighter, we can be better than what we’re doing right now.”
No. 16 Wisconsin will provide the defense with its biggest test Saturday in Madison.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor ranks fifth nationally with 126.1 rushing yards per game and ninth in rushing yards with 1,009. He has 15 rushing touchdowns, ranking fourth nationally.
“When you play a guy as good as Taylor, you might be stopping him for a while, but it’s that threat that he can take it and then go the distance,” Ferentz said. “Those plays break your back. They’re tough to come back from. The big thing is you’re on edge the entire game as long as he’s out there. You have to respect his ability to finish plays, and it’s really a significant factor.”
Linebacker Djimon Colbert said he and his teammates forward to games like this one, “especially guys in the front seven, because we know they’re going to come out and run the ball.”
The Hawkeyes have been preparing for the Badgers’ physical play, and it started with the preparation for the game at Northwestern.
“We had two of our more physical practices ever,” safety Jack Koerner said. “And it carried over into the game. You do see it carry over. It carries over and makes us more effective in the game. It’s been a physical week in practice and we’re getting ready for a physical game. That is the way it should be.”
The Hawkeyes’ defense will have to match the Badgers, who have won six of the last seven games in the series. Wisconsin leads the nation in total defense and is fourth in scoring defense and fifth in rushing defense.
“Wisconsin, they’re not going to make mistakes,” Ojemudia said. “So if we dig ourselves into a ditch — in years past, you see it’s hard to come from behind. So if we’re mistake-free like them, I feel like we have the best edge coming into this game.”