As they watched game tape over their bye week, defensive players on the University of Wisconsin football team saw the same issue crop up time and again.
Missed tackles led to big plays for opponents during the back-to-back losses that have the Badgers in must-win mode for the remainder of the regular season. UW’s defense, still statistically one of the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, wasn’t rallying to the ball and getting multiple players involved on tackles.
Early in the season, even when it was a one-on-one tackle situation, the No. 16 Badgers were able to get opponents to the ground. But the inability to do so proved costly against Illinois and Ohio State.
“I just feel like we’ve got to get back to how we were before, everybody swarming to the ball. Shooting your shot, trusting that everybody else is going to swarm,” sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose said.
Despite controlling the game most of the way defensively at Illinois on Oct. 19, missed tackles led to two touchdowns, which allowed the Illini to hang around before pulling off a 24-23 upset.
Since Nate Stanley took over as the starting quarterback in 2017, the Badgers have beaten the Hawkeyes 38-14 and 28-17.
On Donny Navarro’s 48-yard touchdown reception, Wildgoose and safety Eric Burrell collided and instead of bringing Navarro down, allowed him to break free with no defenders in his way to the end zone. On Reggie Corbin’s 43-yard scoring run, UW linebacker Jack Sanborn couldn’t get off a block fast enough to make a tackle in the hole.
In UW's 38-7 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 26, running back J.K. Dobbins was a load to tackle, and the Badgers were spread out due to the Buckeyes’ alignment. Dobbins ran for 163 yards, taking advantage of a defense that was on the field often.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard says his unit’s tackling issues come down to playing strong competition and focus.
“I think there’s a combination of things — playing some talented guys, and teams that know how to create space. We’ve got to finish those plays. We can’t hide, they’re going to be out there, we’ve got to make them. We were making them, and I think you saw a little bit of fatigue. I think you’ve got guys who are tired that aren’t completely focused. We’ve got to push past that,” Leonhard said.
“In order to be the team we want to be, you’ve got to be able to push through those moments.”
Blocking A.J. Epenesa, being stout against the I-formation run, and containing quarterback Nate Stanley are all key for No. 16 UW.
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No. 18 Iowa — the team UW plays at 3 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium — poses a different challenge than Illinois or Ohio State.
Where the Illini and Buckeyes create space and try to attack it, the Hawkeyes pack it in and rely on their offensive line to move bodies and create room to run. It’s a similar style to UW’s offense, which senior linebacker Chris Orr said is valuable in preparation for Iowa.
“This is where it comes alive. Sometimes when we play other teams, it’s almost like a completely different look. Their offensive line isn’t as big, but really athletic. Whereas playing these guys, more so the big, technique maulers that can move a little bit,” he said. “It’s great that you’re going to be comfortable in this game.”
Tackling well will be crucial against Iowa, which has struggled to score against some of the better defenses it has faced. The Hawkeyes scored 12 points at home against Penn State and 10 at Michigan.
UW can’t afford to let a short or medium gain turn into a big play after a missed tackle. Senior linebacker Zack Baun said a key will be to play more physical at the point of attack, which should allow the Badgers to get more defenders to the ball.
“Tackling has kind of gone a little unorthodox on us, I think we could get back to that,” Baun said. “So just making the first tackle, the first man on scene, securing him and then having guys rally to the ball.”
Players said part of the reason the missed tackles were so obvious on tape was that the team’s tackling was a strong suit early in the season. So when opponents started to get bigger gains on plays UW could have stopped sooner, the mistakes were clear.
Sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks said correcting those errors is a matter of having the right attitude.
“Sometimes, you can go do all the techniques and stuff like that, but it’s really a mindset to go in there, stick your face in there, and get the tackle and get the guy down. That’s something we for sure want to clean up. It’s something we work on every day,” Hicks said.
“We were good for the first six weeks, but the last couple weeks it’s something we haven’t been good at. We’ve been attacking it, especially this bye week, and we will be better.”
No. 16 Badgers vs. No. 18 Iowa: Who has the edge?
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
Jonathan Taylor will be itching to get things going against the Hawkeyes after his lowest output of the season against Ohio State and a bye week. The offense has struggled in recent weeks without the junior tailback’s big plays, and the sledding doesn’t get easier against the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s run defense is the eighth-best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, allowing 87.8 yards per game.
UW quarterback Jack Coan (above) was under siege against the Buckeyes, as he was sacked five times. That pressure effectively negated what the Badgers could do through the air. He should have more time against Iowa, which isn’t as talented up front as OSU, but UW must protect Coan better to have a chance to move the ball.
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa is a premier pass-rusher, and will be a good test for the offensive line. Senior linebacker Kristian Welch, an Iola native, leads the Hawkeyes with 47 tackles, but won’t play due to injury, per Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia has two interceptions and six pass breakups this year, leading the 12th-best pass defense (178.1 ypg allowed) in the country.
EDGE | PUSH
WHEN THE HAWKEYES HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Nate Stanley (above), a Menomonie product, is not having a great year for Iowa, completing 60.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns compared to five interceptions. However, he is generating plays with his mobility, as Iowa utilizes his athleticism with bootlegs and designed roll-outs, and his TD total would be better if the Hawkeyes threw it more inside the 10 instead of leaning on the ground game. Losing two tight ends to the NFL — first-round picks T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — also hurt Stanley’s production.
The Hawkeyes, who run most plays out of the I-formation, are averaging 24.4 points per game. A trio of running backs — Mekhi Sargent (98 carries, 443 yards, 4 TDs), former Monona Grove standout Toren Young (62-357-1) and Tyler Goodson (64-316-1) — carry the load in the backfield. Iowa’s run game presents a challenge to the Badgers, who need to tackle better than what they showed against Illinois and Ohio State to avoid big plays from biting them again.
UW should be able to use its base 3-4 defense more often against the Hawkeyes, which should help free up linebackers in the run game.
EDGE | UW
Alexander Smith’s blocked punt against Ohio State was UW’s first since 2014, and a highlight for a special teams unit that has struggled at times.
Aron Cruickshank (above) has only had nine kick returns this season, but he’s popped two of them of 44 and 38 yards.
Iowa’s Keith Duncan is 19 of 22 on field goals this season, including 10 of 12 from 40-49 yards. In a game that shapes up to be a tight one, Duncan’s accuracy is a big factor in converting drives into points — a luxury UW can’t always count on with Collin Larsh, who is 6 of 10 on field goals this year.
EDGE | IOWA
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz (above) is the longest-tenured coach in FBS, and is the only coach who was hired by his school in the 1990s. He and UW coach Paul Chryst have similar styles on the field and in constructing a coaching staff — continuity matters.
UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph has worked with Chryst for more than a decade, while Ferentz has longtime assistant Phil Parker as defensive coordinator for an eighth season and his son, Brian, as the offensive coordinator. Brian Ferentz played at Iowa before a career in the NFL as a player and a coach. Both teams are coming off of bye weeks, giving both coaching staffs time to correct mistakes and make adjustments.
EDGE | PUSH
Both teams are desperate for a win. Both sit at 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten Conference. With four games remaining in the regular season, the Hawkeyes and Badgers are very much in the running for a Big Ten West Division title, but would need to win out to give themselves a chance to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game.
UW is unbeaten at home this year, and is playing its first home game since Oct. 12. With their chances at a conference championship hanging in the balance, expect UW to ride the home-crowd energy.
EDGE | UW
STATE JOURNAL'S PICK
There’s more talent on the Badgers’ sideline — the results of the past two weeks don’t change that.
But finding a way to utilize that talent is going to be key, and two weeks to prepare should be more than enough time for Chryst and Rudolph to get things together offensively.
Jim Leonhard won’t allow Iowa’s simple yet effective offense to create big plays, and UW keeps the Heartland Trophy.
BADGERS 20, HAWKEYES 10
THE NUMBER (UW)
5: Turnovers in the last two games for the Badgers after giving the ball away four times in the first six games
THE NUMBER (IOWA)
36: Total penalties for the Hawkeyes, whose 34.9 yards per game lost from penalties is fifth-fewest in the nation
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Rushing offense: UW is down to 25th in the nation at 216.4 rushing yards per game, and coming off its first game in which it failed to rush for 100 yards since 2017
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Sacks allowed: Iowa has given up 18 sacks this season (2.25 per game), so UW’s improved rush should be able to put pressure on Stanley
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