This is the 11th in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.
Any Wisconsin football fan perusing the team’s schedule recognizes the opportunity in front of the Badgers for 2014. No Ohio State. No Michigan. No Michigan State. No Penn State. Without the traditional powerhouses on the slate, there really are only a select few games that threaten Wisconsin’s chance to reach the Big Ten championship game.
Perhaps no game will be more important than Wisconsin’s road contest against Iowa on Nov. 22. Yes, Nebraska and Minnesota are two tough opponents sandwiching the Hawkeyes. But both of those games are in Camp Randall Stadium, a place in which Wisconsin is 61-6 since the 2004 season.
Does Iowa have what it takes to wreck Wisconsin’s title chances? The Hawkeyes have several starters that need to be replaced on defense, but they maintain a solid nucleus on offense, including the starting quarterback, top wide receiver and top three running backs. The Big Ten West appears to be wide open, with Iowa and Wisconsin considered among the favorites. This game will go a long way toward determining which team emerges from the conference grind.
Personnel: Iowa returns quarterback Jake Rudock, who started all 13 games for the Hawkeyes last season. Rudock completed 59.0 percent of his passes for 2,383 yards with 18 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But this year’s Iowa team should be much more explosive in the passing game, and the emergence of C.J. Beathard could mean the Hawkeyes use two quarterbacks on occasion this season.
Beathard was especially good during the team’s spring game, when he completed 21 of 39 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown, according to numbers compiled by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The coaching staff has suggested he could be included in certain packages, which would keep defenses off guard.
Iowa still has Kevonte Martin-Manley at receiver, which should help open things up in the passing game. Martin-Manley caught 40 passes for 388 yards with five touchdowns last season. Redshirt freshman Derrick Willies could serve as a nice complement to Martin-Manley. He made five catches for 142 yards during the spring game.
Where Iowa will really punish opponents is on the ground, especially because the Hawkeyes bring back their top three running backs from last season. Mark Weisman is the team’s top tailback after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns. Jordan Canzeri likely will earn even more touches to spare Weisman from exhaustion. Canzeri handled 74 carries for 481 yards with two touchdowns and actually finished with the best yards-per-carry average (6.5) of anybody on the team. Throw in Damon Bullcok (467 yards, one touchdown), and that’s one tough three-headed monster.
Defensively, Iowa has plenty of talent to replace, particularly at linebacker. The Hawkeyes lose one of the top linebacker trios in program history with Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey — each of whom tallied more than 100 tackles last season. Sophomore Reggie Spearman appears in position to fill one of those spots after playing in 10 games last season and recording 10 tackles. Travis Perry (10 tackles) and Quinton Alston (12 tackles) also could step in and play immediately for the Hawkeyes.
In the secondary, Iowa also will need to find players to replace the production of cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller. Lowery tallied 62 tackles with three interceptions, while Miller added 70 tackles and three picks. Jordan Lomax is moving from cornerback to free safety to help the secondary, and Desmond King will fill in for Lowery at cornerback after recording 69 tackles with eight pass breakups. Still, Iowa has many question marks on defense as the 2014 season approaches.
Tenured: Kirk Ferentz is tied for third in the FBS for longest-tenured college football coaches at one program. Ferentz is 108-79 since taking over Iowa’s program in 1999, which is the same year Bob Stoops became Oklahoma’s coach. The only two active coaches at their programs longer are Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer (1987) and Troy’s Larry Blakeney (1991).
Heartland Trophy rivals: Wisconsin and Iowa have played 87 games in the teams’ rivalry, and the win-loss records could not be much closer. With a 28-9 victory last season at Iowa, Wisconsin took a 43-42-2 series lead.
Two top defenses: If Wisconsin and Iowa play defense as well as each team did last season, expect a low-scoring affair when the two meet Nov. 22 in Iowa City. Iowa finished the season ranked sixth in the FBS in total defense (303.1 yards per game), while Wisconsin ranked No. 7 (305.1 yards per game). Only Michigan State, which ranked second nationally (252.2 yards per game) was better among Big Ten teams.