Wisconsin’s defense impressive in win over Iowa

Strength met strength. Power met power. And Wisconsin’s strength and power absolutely obliterated Iowa on Saturday.

Wisconsin emerged with a 28-9 victory at Kinnick Stadium thanks to yet another impressive defensive effort. The Badgers (6-2, 4-1 in Big Ten play) struggled early on offense but did enough to earn a comfortable win.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s performance in Game 8:

Passing offense: B-minus

Considering the way things began for Wisconsin’s offense, this grade really isn’t too bad. The Badgers did not record a first down during the first quarter against Iowa and managed only 25 yards of total offense. Quarterback Joel Stave completed 2 of 5 passes for 11 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in the opening frame.

Stave’s final numbers were far from spectacular, but he did enough to provide Wisconsin with a cushion. He finished the game 11 of 19 for 144 yards with two touchdowns and one pick. And, really, the interception wasn’t his fault. Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey blitzed up the middle and was untouched until he drilled Stave as he was delivering a throw. The ball wobbled high in the air until it was intercepted by Tanner Miller.

Stave did make a couple of nice throws when the Badgers needed him, however. He found tight end Jacob Pedersen down the field for a 44-yard touchdown that put Wisconsin ahead 7-6 with 1:44 remaining in the second quarter. He also hit receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 20-yard third-quarter touchdown that gave the Badgers a 14-6 lead.

Abbrederis injured his chest on the play and did not return, which essentially rendered the passing game nonexistent. Consider that Abbrederis has 46 catches and the next-best wide receiver, Jordan Fredrick, has eight. Stave still managed to piece together drives that kept the chains moving and allowed Wisconsin to score two more touchdowns.

After Abbrederis exited the game with 7:34 remaining in the third quarter, Wisconsin had four more offensive drives. During that span, Stave completed 4 of 4 passes for 40 yards — two to running back James White, one to Pedersen and one to receiver Jeff Duckworth. Meanwhile, the Badgers ran the ball 21 times.

Fans seem to be up in arms that Stave isn’t the next Russell Wilson, but he has Wisconsin at 6-2, including 4-1 in the Big Ten and still on track to challenge for a BCS bowl game.

Rushing offense: B

The rushing attack on Saturday was primarily about James White, and it’s about time he earned the love he so richly deserves. White has rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 games during his career, but Saturday marked the first time he was the only Badgers tailback to achieve the feat during one of those games.

White finished the day with 19 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns, which equaled the number of rushing scores Iowa’s defense had allowed all season. He scored on runs of 11 and 2 yards in the second half and eclipsed the 100-yard plateau with a 59-yard scamper down the right sideline in the fourth quarter.

Generally, Melvin Gordon has been right alongside White. But Gordon did not have the type of game we have become used to seeing from him this season.

Gordon entered the day ranked No. 4 in the country in rushing yards per game (144.6), and he struggled to find many holes against Iowa. His lone touchdown was called back because of a penalty. Gordon finished the game with 17 carries for 62 yards. His rushing average dropped to 134.3 yards per game and put him at No. 6 nationally — still not a bad place to be, obviously.

Wisconsin continued to use backup running back Corey Clement as a decoy in its jet sweep formation, and it will be interesting to see when coaches decide to let him take a carry or two as well. Clement is explosive. And if nothing else, it makes future opponents have to prepare for yet another talented Badgers tailback.

Passing defense: A

You really can’t ask for much more out of a defense than what Wisconsin was able to accomplish against Iowa. The Hawkeyes used two quarterbacks, putting backup C.J. Beathard into the game after starter Jake Rudock injured his left knee while being intercepted in the third quarter.

Iowa’s quarterbacks finished the game a combined 16 of 40 for 179 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Badgers cornerback Darius Hillary recorded his first career interception when Rudock suffered his injury, catching the ball at Iowa’s 20-yard-line. One player later, Stave found Abbrederis for a touchdown to give Wisconsin a 14-6 lead.

In the fourth quarter, Badgers defensive end Pat Muldoon made an incredibly athletic interception while diving and falling on his backside. It was his first career interception and set up White’s 11-yard touchdown run, which pushed Wisconsin ahead 21-6.

Iowa is not a particularly good passing team. The Hawkeyes rank ninth out of 12 Big Ten teams in passing offense and 11th in passing efficiency. Still, the performance from Wisconsin was exceptional and represented a marked improvement from its last game against Illinois. Two weeks ago, the Illini threw for 319 yards and beat Wisconsin’s secondary with some big pass plays.

On Saturday, Wisconsin’s defense was stout all the way around.

Rushing defense: A-minus

Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock have proven to be bruising running backs for Iowa. But neither had a very memorable game against Wisconsin’s run defense.

Weisman carried the ball nine times for 15 yards, and his longest run was eight yards. He has been dealing with foot and upper-body injuries and appeared to injure his elbow against the Badgers. He carried only twice in the second half.

Bullock, meanwhile, carried six times for only six yards total. Weisman came into the game averaging 4.9 yards-per-carry and Bullock 4.0 yards-per-carry. On Saturday, they averaged 1.7 and 1.0 yards, respectively.

For the game, Iowa carried 32 times for 115 yards — a per-carry average of 3.6. That number was helped because backup running back Jordan Canzeri got loose on a 43-yard run down to Wisconsin’s 17. But the Badgers held and forced Iowa into a field goal, which brought Iowa to within 14-9. The Hawkeyes would get no closer, though.

Special teams: C

It was a windy day at Kinnick Stadium, and both teams had to deal with the elements. But the Badgers committed plenty of mistakes, and they very well could have cost them a victory if things had transpired differently.

Badgers kick returner Kenzel Doe struggled with two punts that hung up in the air. The first occurred with Wisconsin leading 7-6 late in the second quarter. Iowa punter Connor Kornrath hit a short wobbly punt that bounced into Wisconsin territory. Doe tried to signal teammates to stay away from the ball, but it nearly hit Dezmen Southward, who was attempting to block for Doe. Wisconsin recovered the ball at its own 42-yard-line.

The second mistake took place early in the third quarter, when Doe misplayed a punt that bounced off his chest and was fumbled away. Southward recovered at the Badgers’ 33-yard-line.

Doe said he was not in position for the second kick. Coaches put him between 50 and 55 yards away from the punter, but the kick traveled roughly 40 yards instead.

On the other side, Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer tried rugby-style kicks and anything else that would negate the wind, but he had a tough day as well. Meyer punted eight times and averaged only 33.9 yards per attempt because of the stiff winds for two quarters. Three of his punts traveled 19, 23 and 27 yards.

Sophomore kicker Jack Russell continued to search for the first made field goal of his career. He missed a 54-yard attempt into the wind just before halftime that fell short and right. Initially, he made the 54-yard try, but Iowa had called timeout to negate the play. He is now 0 for 4 on field goal tries in his career.

Overall: B-plus

Wisconsin held an opponent without a touchdown for the fourth time in eight games this season, and that’s a pretty incredible feat. The Badgers now rank No. 6 nationally in total defense (286.1 yards per game) and No. 5 in scoring defense (15.0 points).

Considering the Badgers were missing linebacker Chris Borland (hamstring), defensive end Tyler Dippel (personal family issue) and later receiver Jared Abbrederis (chest), it made the performance even more impressive. Special teams issues need to be cleaned up, but a lot of those problems stemmed from the swirling winds inside the stadium. The passing game, too, needs to find more consistency. Still, Stave has done enough to keep Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten.

Every game remaining on the regular season schedule is winnable, and Wisconsin should feel awfully good about where it is headed with the final month of the season here.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter