MADISON, Wis. – Saturday afternoon will be the ultimate test of Wisconsin’s contender status. Facing the No. 20 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, Wisconsin will take the field at Camp Randall in what is undoubtedly a must-win matchup. Any losses from here on out will sink Wisconsin’s hopes of a College Football Playoff berth. Saturday will be the first ranked opponent Wisconsin has faced, so a win will both boost their reputation as an elite program, as well as polish their resume in hopes of capturing one of those elusive four playoff spots.
Iowa, fresh off a 55-24 pummeling of Ohio State, has less on the line than does Wisconsin. At 6-3, they realistically are not competing with Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title, barring a colossal collapse from the Badgers. That being said, Iowa would love to play spoiler two weeks in a row, and Wisconsin will have to compile their best game of the year to walk out with a preserved win streak.
What’s more, with leading receiver Quintez Cephus out for the year, an already one-dimensional Wisconsin offense will either have to rely on the heroism of Jonathan Taylor or adapt as they have in the past.
“You know Quintez is a huge loss for us obviously. You’ll miss him on the field. But the thing you’ve seen is that guys will step up, regardless of their role,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 10, 2017
In a pivotal game for a battered Wisconsin squad, here are the players to watch from both sides.
Offense: Alex Hornibrook/Receiving Corps
The sophomore quarterback has been nothing but solid all year, but Saturday he’ll have to be the elite passer he’s shown flashes of in the past. With Cephus out, Hornibrook will be without his leading scorer through the air. As such, his ability to diversify his targets and adapt to a new-look offense will be an X-factor when the clock starts Saturday.
Additionally, if there’s ever been a time to embody the “next man up” mindset, it’s now. Fumagalli, Taylor and Davis will all have to be on their games Saturday, both to take the offensive burden off of Jonathan Taylor, and to make life easier for their quarterback. Also, look for Kendric Pryor to play a bigger role than he has all season. With only six receptions on the year, don’t be surprised if that number has doubled by game’s end Saturday.
Defense: D’Cota Dixon
Dixon, Wisconsin’s secondary leader and captain of the team, is listed as questionable ahead of Saturday’s matchup. His health will be key to a complete defense, one whose secondary is perhaps their most vulnerable characteristic.
If Dixon plays, which appears a game-time decision currently, his presence will be felt on both sides of the ball. Dixon is an emotional and physical spark plug for a Wisconsin defense which will need to compile their most communicatively and emotionally sound game of the year.
Offense: Nate Stanley
The sophomore quarterback is not a new face to head coach Paul Chryst, who tried recruiting the 6′ 5″ gunslinger when he was still a coach at Pitt, per ESPN.
“He’s done a nice job of continuing to grow and develop,” Chryst said. “It looks to me like he’s playing with confidence. He’s tough and he’s a really good quarterback.”
Stanley has thrown for 1,929 yards on the year, not to mention 22 TDs and just four interceptions. After a weekend where he threw for five scores, his production will need to be intensely contained should Wisconsin want to leave victorious.
Defense: Josey Jewell
The senior linebacker is the heart of the Iowa defense. With 92 tackles on the season, 32 more than anyone else on his team, Jewell is physically everywhere at once. Limiting his versatility and astronomic production will be a point of emphasis for the Wisconsin offensive line, a group of guys who’ve proven mobile and versatile.
With Taylor expected to carry the ball frequently, knowing Jewell’s position at all times will go a long way to maximizing Taylor’s production, and ultimately Wisconsin’s probability of a victory.
This is Wisconsin’s toughest test to date this year. After Saturday, the Badgers will be viewed in a different light regardless of a win or loss.