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Leistikow's Iowa-Wisconsin prediction: Which team produces the winning wrinkle?


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IOWA CITY − A significant game for the rest of the 2022 season awaits both Wisconsin and Iowa on Saturday.

The winner can maintain hope to, at minimum, share a Big Ten West Division championship and perhaps play its way to Indianapolis.

The loser, though, cements an underachieving season. The Badgers and Hawkeyes, who have combined to win six of the eight West titles and were projected to finish 1-2 this season, enter their latest collision at 5-4 overall. The loser can do no better than 7-5.

The winner, meanwhile, could still have a nine- or 10-win season and enjoy a sun-splashed January bowl game (even the Rose is on the table) if everything comes together.

Which team hoists the Heartland Trophy at around 6 p.m. Saturday under the Kinnick Stadium lights? Let’s preview the toss-up showdown with three selected questions from my text-message group (free for subscribers!), as always.

Is Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense too much for a young line to handle? Will they revert back to pre-Northwestern play?

A great observation and a question that obviously was impacted by seeing Wisconsin’s defense sack Iowa quarterbacks six times a year ago in a 27-7 suffocation in Madison. Outside linebacker Nick Herbig feasted that day with 2½ sacks and a forced fumble. His presence will keep left tackle Mason Richman and right tackle Jack Plumb on edge Saturday.

One of the reasons Iowa has historically had trouble with Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 defense is because the Hawkeyes’ zone-blocking approach counts on defenders being where they expect them to be. But Wisconsin’s scheme relies on four linebackers that can attack from anywhere and anytime – around the edge or up the middle. That uncertainty as an offense can paralyze play-calling, such as being afraid to call slower-developing pass plays like naked bootlegs.

So, yeah, one of the fascinating storylines in this game is how Iowa’s offensive line holds up after gaining confidence with two straight productive, well-balanced weeks in wins by a combined 41 points over Northwestern and Purdue. Perhaps the biggest worry for the offensive line is 315-pound nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who clogs up the middle of the line and allows those Badgers linebackers to roam free. Iowa center Logan Jones will have his hands full Saturday.

Bottom line: Yes, I think the chance for a step back for the offensive line is a high possibility. But that’s why this game is another referendum on offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, to find a way to push the ball downfield against a suspect Wisconsin secondary.

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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

Who has improved more, Spencer Petras or Graham Mertz?

Thank you for this question, which raises the parallels of each team’s third-year starting quarterbacks. Petras will make his 29th career start Saturday and has thrown for 4,875 yards at Iowa. Mertz will make his 30th career start Saturday and has thrown for 4,976 yards for Wisconsin. Mertz owns the edge in touchdown passes (36 to 24); Petras owns the edge with fewer interceptions (19 to 22); and Mertz has a higher completion percentage (60.6% to 56.7%). And, each quarterback has won a start against the other − Petras in 2020 with one of his better games as a Hawkeye; Mertz in 2021.

Mertz, the former five-star prospect out of Kansas City, went through some serious dips a year ago. And we know that Petras has had well-documented struggles since his 12-game winning streak was snapped a year ago with a four-interception game vs. Purdue. Both quarterbacks have played some of their best college football in recent weeks.

But the short answer to the initial question is Mertz.

Because of his high expectations, he hasn’t gotten enough credit for throwing for 17 touchdown passes this season (second in the Big Ten to Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud), and he has six 200-yard games in 2022 to Petras' two. Since the head-coaching change from Paul Chryst to Leonhard, Mertz has been at his best with nine TDs vs. one interception.

Interestingly, each quarterback had a bad game vs. Ohio State and their best game vs. Northwestern. Their lines against Purdue (both recently) were almost identical − Mertz was 13-for-20 for 203 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-24 win; Petras was 13-for-23 for 192 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-3 win.

More than likely Saturday, whichever quarterback rises to the occasion against a tough defense will lead his team to victory.

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Kelton Copeland details wide-receiver challenges at Iowa
Iowa's sixth-year wide receivers coach discusses Diante Vines, Jacob Bostick and recruiting.
Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

Given that both teams know each other well, who will be the first (by design) to break tendency and force the other to adjust?

It's probably more likely that Wisconsin is first to throw in some unexpected wrinkles, as Leonhard's promotion brings fresh unknowns to the table. A younger offensive staff, led by coordinator Bobby Engram, also adds to the unpredictability.

Iowa has tried to shake things up against the Badgers in recent years. A 4-4-3 defensive look from Phil Parker in 2019 ultimately failed to stop Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 250 yards. Last year, Brian Ferentz called a five-wide pass on Iowa's first play ... and Petras was sacked to set the tone for the day.

My guess: The Hawkeyes will be happy to rely on a risk-averse offense, the country's most stingy defense in yards per play (3.85) and punter Tory Taylor ... just like usual.

Wisconsin (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten) at Iowa (5-4, 3-3)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday, Fox Sports 1, Wisconsin by 1½ points

Where Wisconsin has the edge: The Badgers don't have one of their quintessential offensive lines, but they do have a much better running game (4.88 yards per carry vs. Iowa's 3.18). That's a good game plan for Wisconsin on what's expected to be a cold day.

Where Iowa has the edge: A talented veteran secondary combined with a deep defensive-line rotation has the chance to fluster Mertz, not to mention that middle linebacker Jack Campbell might be the best player on either roster.

Prediction: Iowa 17, Wisconsin 13. Iowa freshman Kaleb Johnson keeps pace with Wisconsin sophomore Braelon Allen in the run game. The Hawkeyes have the better defense and the home crowd in what should be a Kinnick night-game atmosphere during the third and fourth quarters.

Saturday's other Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

Last week: 3-4 vs. the spread (Season: 37-37)

Purdue (5-4, 3-3) at No. 20 Illinois (7-2, 4-2)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., ESPN2, Illinois by 6½

Prediction: Look at the box score in last week's 23-15 loss to Michigan State, and it's hard to believe Illinois lost after outgaining the Spartans, 441-294, controlling the clock and pushing on turnovers. Bret Bielema won't allow a second straight home loss, especially after studying how Iowa suffocated the Purdue offense. The Illini are the tougher team and will get back into the driver's seat for the Big Ten West title on a cold day. Illinois 27, Purdue 17

Rutgers (4-5, 1-5) at Michigan State (4-5, 2-4)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Michigan State by 9½

Prediction: Give both teams credit last week for putting up excellent fights (Rutgers led Michigan at halftime; Michigan State stunned Illinois); that's a testament to the buy-in head coaches Greg Schiano and Mel Tucker are getting. Rutgers needs to get back to running the football after being held to a combined 82 yards the past two weeks. Michigan State 27, Rutgers 24

Indiana (3-6, 1-5) at No. 2 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox, Ohio State by 39½

Prediction: The national discussion is now whether Michigan has surpassed the Buckeyes. Look for C.J. Stroud to throw a lot to reinvigorate his Heisman Trophy chances while Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles puts the clamps on against the co-worst team in the Big Ten. Ohio State 48, Indiana 0

Nebraska (3-6, 2-4) at No. 3 Michigan (9-0, 6-0)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 pm., ABC, Michigan by 30½

Prediction: Fox's football doubleheader this week is basically a seven-hour infomercial for the Big Ten's top two powerhouses. Nebraska is without Casey Thompson again, so it'll be either Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy under center. Michigan might take its foot off the gas a bit with difficult games from here on out. (The Wolverines host Illinois next week before traveling to Ohio State.) Michigan 41, Nebraska 15

Northwestern (1-8, 1-5) at Minnesota (6-3, 3-3)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Minnesota by 17½

Prediction: Mohamed Ibrahim's 17-game streak of 100-yard rushing games is the longest in FBS since 2000 and it should get to 18 heading into next week's Iowa matchup, as Northwestern has the 113th-ranked run defense in FBS. The Gophers also have the No. 7-ranked defense in the country and won last year's matchup by 27 in Evanston. Minnesota 35, Northwestern 14

Maryland (6-3, 3-3) at No. 15 Penn State (7-2, 4-2)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., Fox, Penn State by 10½

Prediction: Maryland was paralyzed by the weather last week in Madison, and now it faces some of the best defensive backs in the country. Rain and wind could crop up in State College, which would mean a perfect storm for the Nittany Lions, who can still make a New Year's Six run. Penn State 30, Maryland 17

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.