Wisconsin’s second off week came at an ideal time for quarterback Jack Coan. The free Saturday gave him a little extra time to scrape the Ohio Stadium turf out of his facemask and run his uniform through the rinse cycle an extra time for good measure.
Oh, and it gave Coan a few additional days to try to erase games against Illinois and Ohio State from his memory. That may be easier said than done, though.
Saturday, No. 13 Wisconsin (6-2) hosts No. 18 Iowa (6-2) in a matchup that could have significant B1G West implications as we close in on the final stretch of the season. The primary storyline will be the same as it’s been every week the Badgers are in action — can Iowa’s defense contain Jonathan Taylor?
Without question, that’s an important aspect of Saturday’s contest, just as it has been all season. Maybe more importantly than Taylor vs. the Iowa defense, though, is Coan’s frame of mind entering another game against another stingy defense. One that, statistically, is one of the best in the country.
Coan has taken quite a beating the last two games, getting sacked seven times, losing three fumbles and throwing an interception in back-to-back losses to Illinois and Ohio State, both on the road. That interception ended up being the deciding factor in the Badgers’ upset loss to the Illini, too.
Wisconsin’s offense has looked drastically different the last two contests than it did during that six-game winning streak to start the year.
Now, Coan and the Wisconsin offensive line face another significant challenge against an Iowa defense that ranks in the top 12 nationally in every major statistical category. The Hawkeyes rank third in points allowed (10.1 points), eighth against the run (87.5 yards), 12th in defending the pass (178.1 yards) and sixth in total defense (265.9 yards). They’ve held five of eight opponents to their lowest point total of the season — which includes Iowa State, Michigan and Penn State.
Finding the end zone on Iowa — heck, just moving the chains — has been really difficult for offenses.
There is a major difference between Iowa’s defense and the troubles that Ohio State and Illinois present, though. As good as Kirk Ferentz’s bunch is on that side of the football, the Hawkeyes have recorded just 10 takeaways and 16 sacks this year — ranking 11th and 12th in the B1G respectively. It’s not a very opportunistic defense, let’s say.
That’s not to say Iowa doesn’t have some studs. A.J. Epenesa still leads the team with 3.5 sacks and Chauncey Gholston and Daviyon Nixon have combined for 13 tackles for loss along the defensive line. Michael Ojemudia has two interceptions and broken up six additional passes in the secondary. Iowa has some playmakers.
What does all this have to do with Coan?
Even though the Hawkeyes don’t have the same pass rush and talent across the field as Ohio State, and don’t force as many turnovers as Illinois, They should still be able to contain Taylor enough to put Coan in some critical passing situations on Saturday. And that’s where we’ll discover how much of an effect Wisconsin’s last two losses have had on the Badgers quarterback.
Coan has turned the football over four times in the last two games, and taken nearly as many sacks in the last two games as he did in the first six combined. That’s pretty new territory for a first-year starting quarterback. You can’t help but wonder if memories of Chase Young will be lingering in his mind, especially in those 3rd-and-long situations.
Will he have a quick of a trigger, rush throws and miss his open targets? Or will he hang on to the ball too long, tuck it away and take a few sacks, willing to lose chunks of yardage rather than turning the ball over?
Essentially, what I’m asking, is if the mistakes against Illinois and Ohio State haunt Coan again this Saturday? Will a still-young quarterback be able to compartmentalize the negatives from Wisconsin’s two losses and revert back to what got the Badgers to 6-0?
There’s a chance he plays way more conservatively than he has all season. And for a Wisconsin quarterback, that’s really saying something.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but in this case, the numbers and the highlights suggest that Iowa won’t be bothering Coan nearly as much as Ohio State and Illinois did. The Hawkeyes have had trouble getting to the quarterback this year, and if Wisconsin’s offensive line holds up, Coan should have more than enough time in the pocket for most of the day.
The situations where protection collapses and the Hawkeyes do get pressure, and how Coan handles it, is what’s most intriguing about Saturday’s game. Those moments will define this weekend’s rivalry matchup between Iowa and Wisconsin.
They could also be the defining moments in the B1G West race.