LINCOLN — Time for the Big Ten boogeymen game.
Iowa and Wisconsin — the two teams that have beaten Nebraska in each of the past four seasons — will trade blows Saturday in Madison in a late-afternoon tilt. Weather in the 30s and 40s. A bunch of bratwursts on the field, trying to pound each other out of their casings.
NU fans should look on the bright side: Iowa can take some of the steam out of the Badgers a week before they visit Lincoln, even if the Hawkeyes can’t pull off the upset.
The game serves as a Big Ten West title race elimination contest. Iowa lost its two key crossover games to Michigan and Penn State. Wisconsin got clipped at the wire by Illinois, then was washed out by the Ohio State wave of excellence. Both sit two games behind Minnesota, and while it’s possible the loser of Iowa-Wisconsin lands in Indianapolis, it’s very unlikely, to the point of being practically impossible should Minnesota beat Penn State on Saturday.
So there’s real teeth to Hawkeyes vs. Badgers. Recently in the series, Wisconsin has bared its fangs better, winning in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018. On the surface, the teams seem similar — both are physical, both recruit heavily in the Big Ten footprint, both prefer pro-style passing quarterbacks, both are better than Nebraska — but, in the nuts and bolts of it, they’re different. Let Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz explain:
“I think in some ways there’s a lot of parallels, but schematically we’re probably different,” Ferentz said. “Like our offensive blocking systems are probably different. We’re not near as big as they are, although we have two big tackles. I’ve got to get used to that. It’s unusual for us to have guys over 300. But we do have a couple guys that are — so they might be like on the Wisconsin JV, our two good tackles. But those guys are just huge. They are so big, and they’re really good at the way they block and they do a great job, and we certainly don’t have a running back to simulate what we’re going to see on Saturday, so that makes it tough.”
That’s a pretty good Lou Holtz impression Ferentz does there. Almost makes you think Iowa has no particular chance. It’s true that the Hawkeyes don’t have Jonathan Taylor, and, indeed, if you want to look at the difference between the programs this decade, it probably is the difference between the team that had James White, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement and now Jonathan Taylor and the team that had Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels. The latter is a nice group. The former is a bunch of NFL players.
Iowa has the better quarterback, though, in Nate Stanley, and that’s an interesting story, since Stanley comes from Wisconsin. He stuck with the Hawkeyes in the 2016 recruiting class — Iowa’s spectacular 2015 season, featuring a win at Wisconsin, had to help — despite attention from the Badgers. Wisconsin’s Jack Coan has gaudier stats, but they’re built on the back of an elite running game and an even better defense that keeps Coan’s life pretty manageable.
If Iowa can slow Taylor, then get to Coan, there’s some evidence that Wisconsin’s aggressive, hard-to-decipher defense is vulnerable.
Both teams had a bye week to prepare. Look for a slugfest — the over-under is a measly 38½ — that will be tight into the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin is a nine-point favorite. Guess what? I’ll take Herky in a stunner.
My pick: Iowa 21, Wisconsin 17
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Other Big Ten picks
Penn State at Minnesota
11 a.m., ABC
The Nittany Lions are battle-tested with wins at Iowa and Michigan State, plus home wins over Michigan and Pittsburgh. Minnesota’s playing its toughest foe — by far — this season, and its formula of holding the ball on offense to relieve a defense gets challenged Saturday. Penn State forces a lot of three-and-outs.
Line: Penn State by 6½
My pick: Penn State 28 Minnesota 21
Maryland at Ohio State
11 a.m. Fox
Star Buckeye defensive end Chase Young is indefinitely suspended while he works out an NCAA eligibility matter for taking a loan from a family friend last summer. OSU won’t need him to dispatch an exhausted Terrapin team that has to be looking for shelter after back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Michigan.
Line: Ohio State by 43½
My pick: Ohio State 49 Maryland 7
Purdue at Northwestern
11 a.m. BTN
Pride Bowl for Northwestern, which is favored despite getting hammered — a lot — in recent weeks. Just six total points in the last three games. Purdue is starting its third-string quarterback, but he has a much better supporting cast.
Line: Northwestern by 2
My pick: Purdue 17 Northwestern 13
Illinois at Michigan State
2:30 p.m., FS1
The Beard, Lovie Smith, has his team on a three-game winning streak, while the Spartans are coming off a bye week and a good pasting from the local media fed up with offensive mediocrity. The line on this one seems large, given the recent fortunes of the two teams.
Line: Michigan State by 14½
My pick: Michigan State 24 Illinois 17
Sam’s stats so far:
Against the spread: 33-38