MADISON — Wisconsin travels on the road this weekend, playing Big Ten rival Iowa Hawkeyes, in a matchup the Badgers hope to win in order to redeem themselves after two close losses and return the Heartland Trophy back to Camp Randall.
The Wisconsin offense, which has shown great improvement with the transition of Alex Hornibrook to starting quarterback, will have to continue to improve this weekend after two close losses on the road against Michigan and at home against Ohio State.
Against Ohio State, the Wisconsin run game made a huge leap with the success of senior running back Corey Clement in the Saturday night game. Clement had 25 carries, contributing to 166 of Wisconsin’s 236 total running yards.
“Looking back at it, I’d rather substitute the win for the type of production I had,” Clement said after practice Tuesday.
Wisconsin’s passing game was solid at times and static at others. Hornibrook struggled to make plays in the third quarter, giving Ohio State the time to come back. A vital asset to the Wisconsin offense is the number of targets Hornibrook can use. Last Saturday, he took advantage of wide receiver Jazz Peavy, particularly with his many sweep routes to give Wisconsin the first down.
The losses, if anything, fuel the offense for this Saturday’s game. Clement said of the season thus far, “We can be a special team and I really don’t think these two losses really define who we are. I think we are still trying to make a big impact here on the national stage.”
Playing at Kinnick Stadium may be a factor in the game that Wisconsin will have to overcome. Crowd noise and the proximity of fans could lead to misreads and false start penalties if the team is not careful.
“Their fans are right on top of you, so you’ve got to really stay locked in,” Clement said. “I remember when I was there with Melvin and James and those guys were just getting hammered with comments. They just stayed focus and locked in and really just took focus of what they were there for.”
With crowd noise being a factor, Wisconsin’s offensive line, which has seen several adjustments this season, will have to play well to give Hornibrook the time to make throws and find Clement and his fellow running backs the holes to make big plays. The unit has been playing well halfway through the season, and Clement said the group can only improve.
“I think they’ve been getting better every week. I really give them a lot of credit for why plays are happening up front,” he said.
Iowa’s physical defense will be a challenge on Saturday. Hornibrook said of Saturday’s matchup that “when we’re playing them, it’s always going to be a physical game. It’s going to be a hard-fought game.”
Tight end Troy Fumagalli said, “They’re physical. They’re tough. They’re always going to do their assignment. They’re very detailed. Typical Iowa defense. They’re going to play to the whistle.”
Despite praise from Wisconsin players, Iowa’s defense does rank 46 in total defense. In comparison, Wisconsin ranks 12th. Iowa has improved in their past two games against Minnesota and Purdue, however, only allowing on average 74 rushing yards in comparison to the average of 182.8 for the first five games.
Compared to top defenses in Michigan and Ohio State, the advantage is for Wisconsin this week. That means the team has to deliver on offense, especially after the Wisconsin defense has excelled in their own performance and held games to few points despite some offensive struggles.
As Clement said, “It’s crunch time. Time is ticking once again. No more bye weeks so we really got to stay in our playbooks and take advantage of the type of stretch we have in this western division.”