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Leistikow's 5 thoughts ahead of Iowa-Wisconsin: 'These guys have had our number'

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IOWA CITY − The only time that Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa football team has beaten Wisconsin at home in the last 14 years was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Badgers’ roster had been decimated and there were no fans beyond family in the stands.

That 28-7 win at Kinnick Stadium on Dec. 12, 2020, certainly counts in the history books but it also gets a mental asterisk, knowing that wasn’t a true representation of typical Wisconsin football on the field.

Hawkeye fans fully understand the Badgers have given their team fits, dating to the infamous fake-punt game of 2010. Bret Bielema’s bold call on a fourth-and-4 from his own 26-yard line with under seven minutes to go fooled the Hawkeyes and led to the go-ahead score in a 31-30 Wisconsin win. That Badgers triumph kicked off five straight wins inside Kinnick. They would go on to win 28-9 in 2013, 26-24 in 2014, 17-9 in 2016 and 28-17 in 2018. The 2018 contest was a maddening loss in which the Hawkeyes controlled the game but gave up two touchdowns in the final minute.

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Three different head coaches have been a part of that Wisconsin dominance in Iowa City − Bielema, Gary Anderson and Paul Chryst. (Overall, Wisconsin has won eight of the last 10 vs. Iowa.)

“It’s definitely motivation," Iowa left tackle Mason Richman said. "These guys have had our number for a while. Guys understand that, it’s not anything that goes unnoticed.”

Now a new leader brings Wisconsin into town for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. Iowa-Wisconsin clash at Kinnick Stadium. Interim head coach Jim Leonhard was elevated from defensive coordinator after the Badgers administration shockingly fired Chryst after a puzzling 2-3 start. Under Leonhard, Wisconsin has looked like Wisconsin again. The Badgers are 3-1 under their new head coach with three convincing wins over Northwestern, Purdue and Maryland and a six-point overtime loss at Michigan State.

Iowa players said when they turn on Wisconsin tape, they see what they annually see on Wisconsin tape.

“They’re always in the right place at the right time," said defensive tackle Logan Lee. "They’re a very fundamental group. That’s ultimately what’s leading to their success.”

So buckle up. And bundle up. Another Iowa-Wisconsin brawl is on tap. Depending where you look, oddsmakers have this one as a pick 'em or list Wisconsin as a slight favorite by 1½ points. Game-time temperatures are expected to be at or below freezing, 32 degrees.

"When you sign to a Big Ten school, this is everything you dream about. A cold game. Guys just running into each other at high speeds," said Iowa star linebacker Jack Campbell. "Yeah, I'm excited to get out there and play and just like the opportunity we have against Wisconsin. They've been a thorn in our side in the past, and (we) have the opportunity to change that."

Iowa LB Jack Campbell talks Wisconsin offense, offers praise for Seth Benson + more
Iowa’s defensive matchup on Saturday, Wisconsin, is led by QB Graham Mertz who owns a career-best 159.6 passer rating this year.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III, Hawk Central

Why do the Badgers give Iowa fits?

Put simply, Wisconsin has historically run the ball better than Iowa and stopped the run better than Iowa. A day before Chryst was fired, Wisconsin rushed for 2 net yards in a 34-10 home loss to Illinois. Since Leonhard’s promotion to head coach, the Badgers have gotten back to their winning formula: rushing games of 193, 152, 178 and 278 yards and peeling off 5.27 yards per carry while limiting opponents to 2.93 yards per carry. Additionally, Wisconsin has created 15 interceptions this year, second in the FBS only to Illinois’ 16.

“Offensively, it looks to be pretty similar. They just want to run the ball down your throat," said Iowa defensive tackle Noah Shannon.

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Last year’s box score is all that’s needed to remember how tough Wisconsin can be against the Hawkeyes. In a 27-7 loss in Madison, Iowa rushed 30 times for 24 yards while giving up 166 on the ground. Iowa also lost three costly fumbles. Quarterback Spencer Petras threw for just 93 yards and was sacked five times before being knocked out with a shoulder injury. The Hawkeyes gained just 17 first-half yards and 156 for the game.

“They’re very similar to our defense in the sense that you have to earn it all the way up and down the field," Petras said. "They’re not going to beat themselves, they’re not going to blow coverage, they’re not going to leave anyone wide open. You’ve got to execute every play down the field if you expect to score points. That’s a challenge. But what a great challenge. You can’t ask for much more.”

Spencer Petras previews rematch with Wisconsin that didn't go well last year
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras was sacked five times and injured in last year's 27-7 loss.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

The Jon Budmayr factor comes into play

The offseason addition of Budmayr as a volunteer coach and then a paid analyst created headlines and intrigue. The former Wisconsin player and quarterbacks coach was termed a “gift from heaven” by Kirk Ferentz. Budmayr was instrumental in the recruitment and early development of current Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who said Budmayr “was my man.” Budmayr’s biggest contribution to the 2022 Hawkeyes has been assisting offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz with tweaking pass-game concepts, with Ferentz (whose expertise is on the offensive line) in his first year in charge of the quarterbacks after Ken O’Keefe’s retirement.

In a lengthy summer interview with the Des Moines Register, Brian Ferentz significantly downplayed any intel Budmayr could provide about Wisconsin. However, it cannot be denied that Budmayr should be able to offer a thing or two about how to best play against Leonhard’s defense. After all, he went against them for years in practice and knows where the soft spots might be.

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Petras was tight-lipped Tuesday after getting three questions on Budmayr but did offer this:

“He has familiarity with (Wisconsin's defense). I know he’s helping Brian quite a bit. But we have a good understanding of them, too. Coach Leonhard’s been there for a while. There aren’t going to be many surprises with how they’re going to line up.”

Nico Ragaini is one-half of Iowa's Connecticut receiving duo
Fellow Connecticut native Diante Vines was nearby during this interview; Vines and Ragaini are currently leading Iowa's WR group.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Connecticut duo giving Iowa's offense a late-season lift

There are two players on the Iowa roster from Connecticut, which is hardly known as a football hotbed, and both are the team’s two most prominent wide receivers at the moment. With Arland Bruce IV limited by injury, Diante Vines (of Danbury) played a career-high 50 snaps in Iowa’s 24-3 win at Purdue and had two clutch first-half catches for a total of 19 yards. Ragaini (of East Haven) played 44 snaps and recorded his first touchdown since last year’s Penn State game, a 29-yard catch and run off a hot route from Petras. Ragaini finished with three catches for 56 yards.

Both players began the year on the injured list, Vines with a broken wrist and Ragaini with a broken foot. Both have gradually returned to full speed the past few weeks, and that’s been a huge help for Petras and the passing offense. Petras is 34-for-53 for 412 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers in wins against Northwestern and Purdue.

“I know they say Connecticut guys are the toughest guys on the field,” Ragaini said. “So my boy Vines, (area code) 203 guy right here, grew up tough just like me. As you can see last week, he went over the middle of the field and caught that slant ball.”

Ragaini, a fifth-year senior with 112 career receptions, has the option of returning in 2023 for a sixth season. With Iowa’s senior-day ceremonies just over two weeks away (Nov. 25 vs. Nebraska), Ragaini knows he’ll have a decision to make. For now, he's focused on putting his best football on tape in case he tries to take an NFL shot.

“I’m not looking forward, because once you look forward you start missing out on opportunities,” Ragaini said. “… This is the best football I’ve put out. And I’m just continuing to grow on that.

"I feel like l haven’t had my best game so far. I’m just continuing to grow and make plays; have Spencer keep trusting me even more and play my best football."

More good news emerged on the receiver front Tuesday as Ferentz said redshirt freshman Brody Brecht has returned to practice after missing the Purdue game and will play Saturday.

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Monte Pottebaum: "When people use them right, they realize that it still works ... and adds a physical edge for the offense."
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Would committee approach at running back be a mistake?

Kaleb Johnson's 200-yard game at Purdue launched the true freshman, officially, from No. 3 to No. 1 on the Iowa depth chart this week. Johnson was relied upon as the featured back with Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams limited by injuries in West Lafayette. But Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday declared all three backs 100%, meaning for one of the few times all year Iowa has a fully healthy backfield.

"With both those guys back, we have total faith in both guys, just like we did a month ago," Ferentz said. "The only thing that's different now is that Kaleb has inserted himself into the discussion. But we'll play all three."

It was just two Wednesdays ago that running backs coach Ladell Betts said that he thought the three-man committee wasn't allowing his players to get into an extended rhythm, and getting Johnson the bulk of the carries at Purdue (22) proved helpful. It was on Johnson's 13th carry of the game that he took off for a 75-yard touchdown. He had six carries in each of the first three quarters.

Ferentz continued by saying that Johnson has earned the No. 1 spot "short term, I guess, but I'm not ready to ordain him as the next Shonn Greene."

It would be a surprise if Iowa veers away from using Johnson in a featured role, given his recent production (35 carries, 293 yards over the past two games). But Leshon Williams has shown an impressive knack as a third-down back, a role Gavin Williams held down early in the season. Leshon has 10 receptions this season, most of Iowa's running backs, and his 312 rushing yards are second on the team to Johnson's 553.

"He's made himself a little more of a flexible guy, dependable and we can count on him," Ferentz said. "I asked him (Monday) morning, and he said he felt great. That was really reassuring."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.